Friday, October 18, 2013

Chairing Meetings

I spent a lot of time at meetings this week being frustrated by poor chairing.

Now, the stuff we were doing was important, and the people are all good folks, so it isn't that.  It's that the chairs weren't efficient or smooth.  And that, naturally, got me to thinking about what it takes to do a good job chairing an academic meeting.

The bad thing is, of course, that none of us gets a whole lot of education in how to run a meeting (we get little enough in how to run a class, sometimes), and academic meetings aren't like the meetings I went to as a lowly worker bee in a corporation, where I was expected to listen and act on what I was told.  Usually, in academic meetings, we're supposed to meet as more or less equals and make decisions about stuff that's more or less important.

At both of the meetings I was at this weekend, the chair had provided an agenda.  And at both of them, the chair went way off the agenda or into different orders.  Now it's fine for the chair to say that someone has recently requested that we consider X problem that's come up, and is urgent, and to introduce that.   There should be some metacommentary, not a lot, just enough to say, hey, we're going to suspend the agenda for a bit to deal with this urgent problem.  Here goes...

Chairs in at least some cases have a lot of power in setting the agenda.  They need to be aware of that.  And that may mean they need to not talk a lot in the meeting itself.  And certainly, they need to not complain about how hard it is to chair.  (A single comment about being overwhelmed is fine, and perfectly understandable, but don't spend 5 minutes of the committee hour complaining.)

Sometimes, as in the case of an urgent problem that needs to be addressed, the chair will need to explain some context.  But that either has to be fairly short (as in not super complex), or there's got to be time for the committee members to get up to speed on the question before making a decision.  If the chair's the only person who has time to think about the issue well ahead, then the chair's likely to have more influence on the question than is quite right.  And the sneaky stuff where the chair's prepared several people, and not informed others at all, that's probably more sneaky than should happen at a healthy institution.  (I think it happens a lot, though.  I just don't think it should.)

Speaking of the agenda.  It's there for a reason.  As chair, you get to set it, so set it thoughtfully, and only move from it with really good reason.  Don't vary because you forgot about X or Y.

If there are decisions to be made (and usually there are), try to keep everyone focused on gathering the information to make a good decision, sharing and discussing that so that the committee really understands the issue, and then making the decision.  Some decisions really do take some time.  Some don't take as much.  But if the committee is going to need some information, the chair needs to provide the information to start (or ask someone else to do so).  Stopping half way to run to your office to make copies because you didn't think about it reveals poor planning.  (Yes, it happens, but it shouldn't be habit.)

I really like when meetings start promptly and end on time.  I try to do the same with classes.  Yes, I understand that sometimes people will be late, and I can deal with that, especially when they're coming from class or across campus in the snow.  But I've found that when the chair of a committee sets a standard of starting on time, most people manage to get there on time.   (Now someone who knows me in meatspace is probably going to laugh at me for this.  Oh well.)

Now it's your turn.  What would you like from a committee chair?  What makes a chair effective?  What drives you nuts from a chair?


  1. Anonymous10:00 AM

    When I first got here our chair was TERRIBLE at running meetings. There were no agendas. We'd spend ages complaining without any action items. I would often take over these meetings by asking, "Ok, what are we going to DO about that," or saying things a first year assistant prof probably shouldn't say like, "I don't want to be in a department where all we do is complain about people who aren't here." But it was true! Drove me nuts. If they hadn't stopped, I probably *would* have quit. (Those folks eventually did move on...)

    Our next chair brought agendas and cancelled meetings if there wasn't something to discuss and asked for action items and cut discussions short if they weren't going anywhere and once had us vote about whether or not to spend time discussing a contentious point or to wait a year to discuss it again (we voted to wait) since the last discussions hadn't gone anywhere.

    We're now back to the original chair, but he's copied a lot of the things that worked well with our most recent chair, so meetings are no longer as painful, though they don't tend to end early, at least they tend to end almost on time.

  2. The biggest challenge a chair faces (and I have chaired more meetings than I care to admit) is that you have to allow people to say enough of what they are thinking so that they feel heard, while moving along the agenda in a timely manner. It's very easy to get too sloppy, or too directive. And some of the talking, while occasionally off topic, can be ways of people building connections *because* they have been heard.

    I once served on a vestry at my church, where no matter what the first item on the agenda was, we spent 45 minutes on it. That was because the rector didn't keep us on track.

  3. Susan, I think you're exactly right! That balance is so hard, and so important!

  4. Nicole & Maggie's chair sounds wonderful. I want that chair. I especially like the move of calling a vote about whether to wait a year to discuss it again. That's just excellent.

  5. one of my mentors told me "never call a meeting when a newsletter will do," which is to say, don't have meetings where everything that happens is an announcement. I really like a chair who keeps an eye on the action items that are needed to move issues along, and on the process that's needed to build connections/air views/let people speak.