Anil K Khandelwal
Author, advisor, and former CEO
10 Rules for the Chair of Meetings
Why hate meetings? You can't do without them so why not make them work and enjoy!!

Meetings are part of organizational life. They are central to decision-making. From vision making to execution, one has to necessarily pass through the jungle of meetings. Managers love to complain about meetings and they are not wrong. Their grouse is generally about the productivity of meetings and the way meetings are conducted- often unplanned, generalized discussion lacking focus and lack of time discipline. No one can deny the important role of meetings in the dissemination of knowledge, generating ideas, building unified vision, better coordination, collaborative problem-solving, building new perspectives and collective decision- making on critical issues.

I have been in executive career and leadership roles for about 5 decades and based on my experience of attending thousands of meetings, big and small within my organization in my various roles including as a chairman of several Boards and meetings with customers, professionals, with government Ministers and bureaucrats, I have distilled following rules for the effectiveness of meetings. I have been through some most useless and catastrophic and time- wasting meetings to some scintillating ones which provided new vision, perspectives, and learnings. Meetings that helped me to develop my own code- How not to conduct meetings and how to effectively conduct the meetings.

In this piece, I am discussing the role of the Chair as I feel that they have a critical role in making a meeting a delight or a nightmare.

Role of the chair:

The chair is first among equals. Some key qualities of a successful chair are as under:

  1. Self-restraint: I consider this as fundamental. The role holders should follow some ground rules for effectively conducting the meetings. They need to possess conversational intelligence and should actively listen to people in the meeting. They should provide their unique perspective and help the group to avoid distraction and visualize the larger picture. They should avoid any conflict of interest on any issue directly or indirectly and be open about it. They should not try to impose themselves by self-talk or avoidable storytelling and boastful experience sharing repeatedly. They have to be very cautious about their own behaviour in the meeting.

  2. Facilitating direction of discussion : listen, participate and ensure the opportunity to everyone for making a point. Encourage collaborative and problem-solving approach. This does not mean that there will not be tension on some issues. In fact, certain amount of tension is healthy and it can bring intensity to discussions and eventually a creative and matured decision. The key role of the chair is listening, respecting the ideas of others, and contribute their own ideas. It does not happen automatically but requires great personal effort.
  3. Focus on decision making : While deliberations and discussions are important but they must lead to decisions rather than procrastination( unless a very critical issue requiring gathering new facts). Lengthy discussions without an intent to decide the issue is absolutely a time-wasting exercise. No one should be allowed to hijack a meeting with personal agenda or trivial talks.Occasional storytelling or humorous anecdote is welcome to relieve the tension in the room but essentially meeting should stay on course.
  4. Providing psychological safety : The meeting eco-system has to be open, inclusive, encouraging, and mutually respectful. It should allow a transparent system and a high degree of tolerance for criticism and dissent.To encourage open conversation, the views of sceptics must be given due consideration. On critical issues, one man’s views should not be taken as sacrosanct. All efforts should be made to avoid what psychologists call “Groupthink”-the tendency for members of a group to agree with one another, which quiets dissent and suppresses alternatives. While consensus is always welcome but blind and slavish Yes Manship to endorse a decision, can turn out to be counter-productive.
  5. Time management : It is very critical to manage the discipline of time. Understanding the value of time is very critical. Each meeting of senior and top management costs a lot and it does not make sense to undervalue this.Distraction is a natural tendencyin meetings and the chair has to ensure that such distractions should not eat away the time of so many time executives. Maintaining exit time for the meeting is as important as the discipline of starting the meeting on time.
  6. Engagement : It is important that everyone gets an opportunity to present her views. The chair should ensure that atmosphere in the meeting is inclusive, showing respect to the other gender and overall maintaining decency in language and behaviour.
  7. Culture : promote a culture of openness against defensiveness, maintain cordiality and respectful behaviour by everyone present. Be ready to accept criticism if any and discuss issues with an open mind. No one should be treated more equal than the equal and anyone asking any sensitive question or offer criticism of any policy should not be isolated or ignored. Come out as an authentic leader who can be trusted for his words and follow-up actions.
  8. Sensitivity : The chair should show a high degree of emotional intelligence. It is important to be sensitive to others and be open to improve the functioning, avoid group think, cliques or yes man culture in the meetings.
  9. Objectivity : Practicing objectivity and fairness in dealing with the people and issues is key to derive the best results from the meeting.Be in a driver's seat in maintaining the decorum of the meeting and avoiding taking sides or be a spokesperson for a few. At the end of the day, ask yourself- Did you make a good decision?
  10. Manage the room : In meetings, one of the most fatiguing part is to undergo endless power point presentations. A CEO friend of mine practiced a 5 slides rule in attending to any presentation.He will not allow more than 5 slides in any presentation. Many consultants thrive on the long and stylish presentations (presentation looking more like a chemical unit with distillation columns and heat exchangers). Recently I attended a high-power meeting organised by the top management of a company on HRD. Out of 1 hour, 54 minutes were taken away by the head of HRD in his presentation and in remaining time, we (outside experts and top management) were supposed to make comments and our observation. Crispy presentations always helps to maintain the interest of the attendees. The chair of the meeting needs to ensure

Finally, the participants of a meeting have to seriously budget their time for a meeting. The advanced reading of agenda papers, identifying issues, maintaining focus during meetings, and keeping away from distractions can greatly help in making meetings outcome-driven.