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Bernie Bulkin

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About Leadership: Chairing

Posted: 01/30/2012 6:14 pm

We have all seen people do a really poor job at chairing a meeting. Nothing could be easier: Have no idea what the objective is for an agenda item. Lack familiarity with what is being discussed. Ignore people who are trying to be heard. Let others speak for too long when everyone else in the room is bored. Interrupt speakers to interject your own views at inappropriate moments. Let an agenda item end inconclusively, and move on to the next disaster. Have you seen this happen? Have you done it yourself? Do you have someone who will tell you if you are guilty of these errors?

I learned almost everything I practice about chairing a meeting by watching John Browne of BP do it. Here are some of the lessons:

Be clear about who should and should not be present, but err on the side of generosity. There are some people who may not participate very much but will learn by being in the room. Meetings where we are reviewing progress against objectives of a business or function can be very useful places to convey strategic emphasis and determination to achieve performance levels. Of course there are other meetings in companies where a productive outcome depends on only a small number of people being around a table, expressing their views in front of their peers.

Do lots of advance preparation. Be sure that there is a clear answer to what we are going to accomplish with each agenda item, and what the process is going to be to reach that goal. Get a sense of whether the time allocated is likely to be sufficient, and, given that this is imperfect, which things are your priorities and which can be dropped. Or, if things do run over time, are the objectives more important than ending the meeting on time? Make sure others understand if in that case you are going to allow the meeting to continue for longer than originally planned.

Advance preparation also means knowing a lot about what is going to be presented, what decisions are going to be asked for, what conflicting views might surface. This doesn't mean that everything has to be scripted in advance, but it does mean that good quality pre-reading must be prepared, and that, as chairman, you have probed with appropriate staff to understand the issues. John often likes to see all the slides that will be used ahead of the meeting, ask questions about them, and give himself enough time to think through the direction he will want the discussion to take. The role of the Chairman requires a time commitment well in excess of the time for the meeting.

Guide towards the place you want to go, but listen to the views of others. John does this subtly now, but when he was younger he more frequently used an approach of stating the answer and then seeing if anyone would offer an alternative. This is also a technique to practice, because at its best it shows who is willing to stand up to the boss with a different view, and to defend that view. But be self-aware: if the alternative view never wins people will stop expressing it. In the venture capital group I work with, the Senior Partner often expresses a view after a presentation, and then everyone else chimes in with a version of "I agree with Alan." This is not a good use of people.

For certain types of meetings (and with practice you will know when this is appropriate) structure the discussion by asking each person around the table, in turn, to make the points they want to make. If you know your group, you will know who should speak first, who last. This sort of structured contribution is a good way of eliciting points on which there is wide agreement, where you need to either find or declare consensus, and in challenging individuals to bring as much value as they can to an agenda item. It works particularly well for me after a presentation, but before a set of actions are decided, to elicit weakness, inadequate information, as well as strength of argument.

Ultimately, the most important thing is to summarize. And that is the chairman's job and no one else's. We discussed, we made some decisions, and here is what they are. These are the actions that follow. Effectively, the summary creates a minute of the agenda item that sets the course of action. I always admired the summaries that John produced at the end of each agenda item of a meeting he was chairing, and I try to emulate this.

If you watch me during a meeting that I am chairing, I am always taking short notes, but in my notebook I have reserved a space for points that I will want to use in my summary. As we get closer to the conclusion of an agenda item, I am revising these, combining points, looking over my other notes to be sure that I have not missed something important. This is demanding work, and not to be done casually. It can be done for a ten minute item or a three hour single subject meeting. Good summarizing is rarely done successfully, and yet it adds so much to the feeling of accomplishment people have when they leave the meeting.

When I was evaluated by my fellow directors on my performance after my first year as Chairman of AEA Technology, one of the feedback comments was that they really appreciated the summaries I did at the end of discussions. Indeed, I think that how well the chairman summarizes the meeting or agenda item outcomes is what distinguishes an adequate chairman from a real leader. And you know what you want to be?

About Leadership:

About Leadership is a series of 52 columns on corporate leadership essential skills, leading teams, managing your career, the strategic and business practices to make a company and its leader distinctive from competitors. These columns will be of interest to people leading small and medium sized companies today, many of whom have not had much formal training in management skills and techniques; for the many people in big companies who aspire to senior management; and for anyone who thinks: Give me a hint, how can I do this better?