In recent decades, executives have been struggling with very similar challenges in various forms and have yet to find generalised solutions for them. As a business peaks, it will in all probability increase the demand to coordinate activities, exchange information, and engage in decision-making activities- such as meetings. While one might think that these would be straightforward, the reality is that many executives have come to dread the thought of having yet another meeting. Recent reports indicate that many, if not most, meetings fail to produce the desired outcome. This is due to the fact that many executives approach meetings as if they were common sense - but effective meeting management is a skill that must be honed over time. Shantel Dartnall, Head of Governance Services at Statucor, shares her insights on the science behind conducting effective meetings in the 21st century and the vital role played by the chairperson in achieving this.
Meeting management tends to be a set of skills often overlooked by executives across various disciplines, and; some critics have come out in opposition of companies having frequent meetings, stating that they are counterproductive and at times costly. However, this premise offers no concrete backing, especially when taking into consideration the nature of operations in various companies.
Against this notion, calling meetings at regular intervals is beneficial, as a Board cannot effectively govern the company if it doesn't get together frequently and make the necessary decisions. Additionally, a blurred line often occurs regarding the role that the Chairperson fulfils during meetings. It stands to reason that the role of the Chairperson within the company is prominently interrelated to the outcome of having an effective meeting, although it is not the only role. Consequently, the role of the Chairperson in running effective meetings can never be overlooked when discussing meeting management.
“There have been numerous definitions of what an effective meeting is and some have gone on to complicate the concept. Simply put, an effective meeting seeks to meet all the desired objectives and make informed decisions in the shortest possible time. Effective meetings are also not only integral to achieving business goals, but they are also reflective of the overall functioning of the leadership,” states Dartnall.
Any good literature on effective business management outlines that there are essentially three phases to ensuring highly effective meetings:
Before the meeting
There are generally a number of things that need to be put in place before the meeting -, these are tools used to ensure that the time spent around the table is minimised to actual productive time. Chief amongst these are access to accurate and timely information and setting an annual work plan calendar to ensure that everyone understands exactly what is expected, enabling them to plan accordingly. By having prepared and informed attendees a meeting can avoid wasting time on information gathering, focussing rather on clarifying questions and making decisions. Comprehensive meeting packs, circulated well in advance, and members committed to preparation, contribute to cutting short meeting time.
“What we have also seen over time is the benefits of the Chairperson having a close relationship with executives,” states Dartnall. “We have observed how beneficial it is for the Chairperson to arrange an informal pre-meeting with the CEO and CFO prior to the main meeting, to establish core discussion points. This approach is effective in speeding up processes which would otherwise result in drawn out gatherings. This is also true for the relationship with the Company Secretary.” she continues.
Another important aspect in the preparation phase is the circulation of a clear agenda as part of the board pack ahead of time. The structure of the agenda also gives participants an opportunity to prepare questions and to contribute constructively to the meeting. “What we often find is that in an ideal situation, input given by the Chairperson to the agenda allows him/her to exercise some influence within the boardroom.”
At the meeting
As it is always critical for the Chairperson to set the tone of the meeting and ensure it achieves the set objectives, the focus should be on ensuring that all participants stick to the agenda and the allocated times and avoid any off-topic discussions.
“Although difficult at times, we always encourage the Chairpersons to start the meeting not a second late to avoid giving the impression to participants that veering off time will be tolerated. It stands to reason, however, that certain unavoidable instances can affect the start times or agenda allocated times, but the Chairperson should ensure that participants are aware that the meeting is in session or has been adjourned until such a time that a deterrence has been sorted out,” adds Dartnall.
A proficient Chairperson is also one who is able to control outcomes and ensure action items with appropriate deadlines are decided upon – ensuring decisions are always taken for all agenda points and that matters are discussed until a clear outcome is reached.
After the meeting
“One of the key points we have observed is the lack of interaction between executives and non-executives after the meeting - this is true for both small and large companies. Even the interaction with the Company Secretary is limited. Interaction, even at social levels, is imperative as this is how strong relationships are built between directors.”
Accurate minutes and the timely distribution thereof is of cardinal importance during this time. Driving action items should be the focus. While the role of the person driving this activity differs within every company, it should ideally fall with one of the executive members, with the assistance of the Company Secretary. The Chairperson should have a single point of contact, which is usually the CEO, who will drive the individual inputs on actions required.
As initially highlighted, driving effective meetings cannot be isolated from the role that the Chairperson plays. “In this regard, the main role of the Chairperson is to guide the CEO. He/she should always stay abreast of developments within the industry in which the business operates and strive to remain impartial at all times. Essentially, the Chairperson is the link between the Company and its stakeholders,” states Dartnall. The Chairperson should also have sufficient knowledge of the Company, including understanding the company culture, operational drivers, the people, as well as the company products. The Chairperson should also be engaging with everyone, and should be charismatic and never domineering nor antagonistic.
A good Chairperson understands clearly his/her role versus that of the CEO – being wary of not trying to run the company. The view is also supported by a study that represented the views of more than 400 directors on what makes an outstanding chairman, conducted by the Directorbank Group. In the study, Jeremy Hamer, Chairman of Access Intelligence PLC & Glisten PLC sums up the view: “Chairmen, in theory, shouldn’t have a view. The chairman is the collector of everyone else’s views; he’s the man who brings the differing strands of ideas together in a cohesive decision. He’s the coordinator, a facilitator – he’s note the fountain of all knowledge.”
The study also touched heavily on the issue of coaching Chairpersons, with 24% of the respondents commenting that they have no available mechanisms for the support and development of Chairpersons. Interestingly enough, majority of the respondents stressed the importance of having a network of contacts to lean on for guidance as training. As former chairman of Ask Central PLC, George Cracknell once stated: “I don’t think there’s very much support available; I mean, it is one of those things you learn from the people you’ve admired and believe have done the job well over time.”