Running a Meeting

As head of a department you inherit a regular departmental meeting. You review minutes of past meetings and find packed agendas of items largely for information. You chair your first meeting to find less than 10% of the department attends. The presenters on the agenda do all the talking, and after 15 minutes, even you are bored. Why should you have meetings and is there a way to make them more effective? 

Face-to-face meetings are essential. Only so much can be conducted by phone or by email. While poorly-run meetings lead to staff frustration and avoidance, well-run meetings can be a means for enhancing productivity through constructive discussion and feedback.

So how should meetings be run? Meetings must have an explicit agenda, ideally with specific time allocations. Each agenda item should have annotations to understand why that item is being brought forward. Agenda items simply for information should be disseminated in other ways (I have written more on the subject of Communication here). The agendas of the meeting must be relevant to the committee members. Agenda items often involve a presentation, and if so, the presentations should be less than 10 minutes. If a presentation is accompanied by slides, try limiting the number to fewer than six. Reading material relevant to the agenda item should be pre-circulated prior to the meeting and presenters should assume that any pre-circulated material has been read. The sole purpose of presentations at meetings is to explain why the presentation is being made and the need(s) of the presenter from the committee. To reiterate, avoid material within presentations simply for information; such material can be communicated as a pre-read or in other ways. Rather than having the presenter do all the talking, the majority of any agenda item should be spent on discussion and feedback to the presenter (and, again, not consumed by a lengthy presentation!).

To engage attendees to the meeting, individuals relevant to the topic should be called-upon by the chair for comment. Also, the chair should ensure all disciplines around the table are invited to comment. However, another important role for the chair during the meeting is to keep the agenda on time and as such, the chair may need to regulate people who talk too often or too long. Because discussion is so important, meetings with fewer items on the agenda are essential. Minutes from the meeting should reflect the key discussion and decisions, who is responsible for implementing the decision and timelines for completion. Once reviewed and confirmed by the chair, minutes of the meeting should be circulated, not just to the attendees, but also to the entire constituency to provide transparency.

There are several other aspects to running successful meetings. A really important role for the chair is to ensure meetings start on time and end on time. What tends to happen at medical meetings is to wait for 5 minutes for everyone to show. This then teaches people that meetings don’t start on time, leading to a pattern of learned behaviour. If meetings chronically don’t start on time, people chronically show up late. Also, the leader will often chair many different meetings with overlapping membership. Given that some staff will attend multiple meetings, avoid similar topics on multiple meeting agendas with significant overlap in content. Bring items to the most germane committee, and rely on communication/minutes to inform non-participants of meeting content. Finally, always have coffee/tea/water and small snacks – people take valuable time to attend meetings and greatly appreciate the simple gesture of thanks.

Some meetings will be large group meetings with many attendees, while others will be leadership teams involving more sensitive topics. For leadership teams dealing with more sensitive information, the tone of discussion is different than in large group meetings. For leadership teams, there needs to be two levels of conversation, inside- and outside-the-room. The chair plays a critical role in setting the tone of the discussion and building trust within either group. Conversations behind closed doors should be candid and, where appropriate, challenging, but always respectful. (This may take time and multiple meetings to achieve). Leadership teams often have to make difficult decisions. Thus, while the outside-the-room conversation acknowledges debate, in general everyone on the leadership team is expected to be supportive of group decisions.

As described above, a key role for the chair of the meeting is to encourage and facilitate candid and respectful conversations among all committee members. The leader sets the expectations for the discussion (i.e. candid), sets the tone for discussion (i.e. respectful), and explains how decisions will be communicated (i.e. inside-the-room vs. outside-the-room discussions). Discussion should consider as much as possible the multiple expressed views and competing values. As discussed in my post on Leadership Style, for the leader or the leadership team, the leader needs to clearly articulate how decisions will be made, including:

  1. being clear about who has final responsibility, authority and accountability for decision,
  2. articulation of the process for decision making,
  3. providing the principles on how decision will be made.

In some circumstances the final decision resides with the chair; in some circumstances the group will decide collectively and collaboratively, and occasionally the entire committee will vote on the decision. For major decisions (in terms of impact and/or scope), broad input should be obtained. Leading by consensus means achieving agreement during the meeting. However, the leader should ensure significant issues have been addressed with key individuals before the meeting. Don’t be blind-sided by unanticipated resistance. The committee also needs to understand that input must be obtained with the caveat that not all views can be incorporated or accommodated.

In summary, discipline about conducting meetings will lead to better engagement of staff and more productive meetings.

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