The symptoms of imposter syndrome are attempting to poke through your calm façade, and no matter how confident we usually feel in our jobs the impending awareness that we’re going to have to Chair a meeting is triggering a cold sweat on the upper lip. You have to be mindful of a variety of different things at once; “Is anybody paying attention?”, “What if they don’t trust a word I’m saying?”, “How can I make this as engaging as possible, as well as include everyone’s opinion?”, “Was I right in calling a meeting in the first place?” And you’re going to be thinking all of these things at the same time. Whilst you’re in the middle of Chairing the meeting.
Take a breath though, because you’ve got this. Follow these hacks, and you’ll find that you can’t go too far off track. And if you do go off track a little, well that can be the little bit of spice that a meeting often needs.
Firstly, question if a meeting is necessary, or whether a phone call, email or conference call would suffice. Unnecessary meetings can often be full of jargon, because there’s no real focal point. Consider topics such as who you may want to include, as well as why it’s important for them to be there. Thinking about issues such as these may help you to realise that holding a meeting isn’t the most effective use of time and may help you to save valuable resources. A purposeless meeting doesn’t have a reason, let alone an agenda. The Harvard Business Review has put it into a visually pleasing flow chart – simplifying an otherwise flummoxing decision:
We’ve all had that nightmare in school where we turn up to an exam completely unprepared. Well, not having set an agenda for a meeting is probably even more frightening because standing up in front of a room of people who are expecting an effective use of their valuable time with nothing prepared will ruffle more than a few feathers. Creating an agenda ahead of time helps mentally and physically prepare a Chair for a meeting, furthermore, providing it to attendee’s ahead of time allows them to be prepared also – therefore reducing time wastage and increasing efficiency. Also, if the Chair has a clear agenda in mind, then if the worst happens when nerves kick in and they lose track, it’s considerably easier to regain focus through consulting the agenda and bringing themselves back on target.
Considering who your attendees are is vital when organising the agenda. Are they stakeholders in the company, members of your team, clients or customers? The tone taken by the chair will be structured by this, as it may need to be professional yet friendly, or else authoritative (but still friendly). Recognising this will allow a meeting to run much more effectively, as only those who need to be present should be there. Also, if there are key stakeholders who are unable to be present, this should be noted before or during the meeting in order to disseminate the focal topics and decisions to them.
Stay focused on the agenda and on topic throughout the meeting. No one wants to have to stay late and cut into their probably pre-allocated time, and also going off topic will cause wandering minds. Start on time, and end on time. There is nothing more distracting as a Chair of a meeting than to see people clock watching.
Furthermore, if you expect others to participate in a meeting, it is crucial to warn them beforehand instead of expecting them to wing it. If you are asking questions of attendees, aim to make them pointed. This enables a meeting with an engaging flow, allowing attendees to share valuable points without going too far off target.
There are many ways to impart your personality in your Chairing style; think about whether you’re aiming for passionately extrovert, or professionally introvert (or somewhere in between), but whatever style you chose, make sure that you remain approachable and entertaining.
Keep your attendees engaged by pulling them into discussions in a non- confrontational manner, or else engaging in appropriate eye contact as you are discussing topics. Ensure that everyone is given a fair opportunity to speak, as well as remaining authoritative enough if someone is attempting to take over.
Set your meeting room up ahead of time. Nothing disrupts the flow of an authoritative, professional Chairing manner like the squeaking of a large table across a short fibre carpet. Think about how you want the meeting to be organised – as one big group, or a number of smaller ones, as this determines the layout. Leave copies of the agenda on the table for people who may have forgotten theirs – because there definitely will be people who do.
I recently came across a novel way of describing how to put off-topic conversations to a later date, while still addressing them. The “Parking Lot” method is a useful addition to any meeting, and is a great way of dealing with issues that are off agenda, but still relevant; therefore, the meeting won’t run over time, but the important issue will still end up being discussed at an appropriate time.
As a Chair, here are a few simple guidelines on how to “park” a topic:
Pose agenda topics as questions; this leads people to try to answer it instead of becoming lost in the difficulties of the problem. Even if you, as Chair, know the answers, it still facilitates you to approach the issue from another angle. It also demonstrates humility as a Chair, showing that you have an interest in what other people have to say, therefore helping to build trust and respect.
Often, meetings are the discussion grounds for major issues in the workplace. When this is the case, it is wise for the chair to communicate this to all attendees in advance of the meeting, thereby giving everyone the chance to prepare and contribute. Otherwise bringing something important up without warning may cause more of a stunned silence than a conducive discursive.
Note taking (minutes) in meetings is surprisingly neglected, yet it’s the biggest measure of accountability that the Chair has. Many Chairs may choose to note take themselves, but sometimes they may delegate this responsibility to someone else from their team who may not actively be involved in the meeting. This decision will depend largely on the Chair’s personal style, as they may prefer a more engaging format for the delivery of key issues rather than having to commit to writing during a discussion.
Now that you’re adhering to these hacks, remember to bring in some mindfulness and relaxation techniques – stress before and during an important event can cause mental meltdown. Look after yourself, and if you’re prepared, the rest will follow suit.