How to chair a meeting is like sailing a boat. Those who get it wrong treat it like driving a car.
If you’ve driven cars but never sailed a boat, you quickly discover some differences. When you steer a car, it responds immediately but when you steer a boat, it feels it has had no impact. So you steer more, then after a delay, you discover you’ve gone too far, so you over-steer back. If you’re new to this, you can look quite ridiculous lurching from port to starboard to port and not really going anywhere. The key is to have your hand on the tiller or wheel all the time, making continual, small, gentle adjustments.
To make this work, you need to know where you’re going. It’s similar to if you are going to be the chair a meeting. Often, it is quite a distant point on the horizon, so you keep aiming for that, being okay with a little variation, but making these small adjustments so that you’re never too far off course.
And there’s some else you don’t have on a road – drift. Stop your engine while driving and you go nowhere. Stop your forward thrust on water, and the water will take you where it chooses. If your engine dies on a boat, you cannot control the direction of the boat. This becomes an extremely dangerous situation if there’s waves. If you are unable to control the direction of the boat, should a wave hit on the side then it’s easy to tip over.
If you’re about to chair a meeting, remember that you’re the captain of a boat at sea, not the driver of a car on the road.
To chair a meeting successfully, whether large or small scale, apply these techniques for smooth sailing:
- Prepare for your trip
Almost all drownings on boats can be avoided by one simple step – wearing life jackets. Similarly, a huge amount of meeting success comes down to good planning and preparation. That’s everything from communicating the purpose of the meeting in advance, to developing a sensible agenda, to meeting with stakeholders beforehand as needed.
- Keep your eye on that point on the horizon
Before chairing the meeting, be clear on what success looks like. If it’s one hour long, where do you and your crew need to be by the end of that hour? You might let the meeting go 5-10 degrees away from that at times, but never much further.
- Steer constantly and vigilantly
On a boat, you very seldom take your hand off the wheel or tiller. Because of currents and the delays between actions and consequences, you can quickly find yourself off course. As the chair of the meeting, you can’t slip into auto-pilot. You are constantly trying to balance two equally important dimensions: outcome and process. The outcome part is that point on the horizon, but there’s a big difference between getting there and getting there in good shape. That’s the process – that means everything from good team dynamics to similar share of airtime across participants. A good meeting means not only achieving the desired outcomes but also that all the team is looking forward to working together again at the next meeting.
There’s a huge amount to watch in terms of body language, energy levels, friction between specific people, and much more. If you’re not fatigued after chairing a meeting, you haven’t been paying enough attention.
- Steer gently
It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that being the chair means you should take charge, lead discussion, make decisions and speak the most. However, it’s often the opposite. Great chairs might stay silent for reasonable time periods. Why? Because the boat is on course.
A good chair sees when it’s a little off-course, and makes a correction. It could be very little – a question, a paraphrase, a check for understanding, an interjection to stop a tangent before it diverts the meeting or a closing-off of an item to move on…
- Keep moving forward
To chair a meeting well always remember gentle doesn’t mean passive. Good chairs can be quiet but the group never doubts their value or that they are indeed the chair. As a boat that doesn’t move forwards is at the mercy of the current, so is a meeting.
Keep an eye on time. Once all the key elements have been aired, move the team towards a decision. Don’t make rash decisions, but don’t put off decisions unless really necessary.
- Engage the whole crew
It’s not a successful meeting if only the chair thinks so. It’s not a successful meeting if only three-quarters of the team thinks so. Everyone should feel that they were respected and listened to.
That doesn’t mean everyone needs to speak the same amount. Naturally, some people prefer to speak more or speak less. But they should all feel safe, able to contribute and as much a part of the decision as anyone else.
When you chair a meeting, this will take real effort. You need to be observing everyone, not just getting the task done. It may mean checking in – either with the group as a whole or with individuals during the break. And if you’re chairing well, you’ll equip the team to self-regulate so that harmony does not depend on your intervention.
It also means avoiding votes wherever possible. Always aim to make decisions by consensus when you chair a meeting. A vote should be the last option and expressed as such. If your process has been good, even those on the losing side of a vote should respect the decision.
- Watch out for stormy weather
When at sea, difficulties can come from anywhere – even the ‘road’ you are on moves constantly. By being constantly vigilant, the chair can stop most problems before they arise. Sometimes, it means changing the course or seeking safe harbour for a while. Sometimes, it can even mean steering very sharply or throwing the boat into reverse (if a powered vessel).
How to chair a meeting takes skill but a good chair is ready and able to do whatever is needed to get to the destination with the vessel and its crew in good shape. A great chair has spent most of their time with their hand gently nudging the tiller, ensuring that harder measures are seldom required.
About the Author:
Anthony Mitchell is the co-founder and Chief Potential Officer of Bendelta. He is an internationally recognised thought leader in strategic leadership. He has been advising companies internationally for the last 25 years, working across more than 30 countries on five continents advising clients ranging from leading multi-nationals and listed companies to major government agencies and not-for-profits.