Last reviewed 24 January 2018

Look at that title again. Now ask yourself if the last meeting you attended really got results, and were they results the meeting was intended to obtain. If the answer is not a clear “yes” to both parts, then fault almost certainly lies with the person chairing the meeting says Bob Patchett.

The success of any organisation lies with its employees, and a meeting can be a useful way of working them, but it can also be an expensive waste of time. A useful way of rating a meeting is to ask “was it value for money?”. Make a rough calculation of the hourly salary of the people attending and multiply that by the length of the meeting, then ask “what did the meeting achieve, was there a cheaper way of achieving it, and in any case, was the result worth that expenditure?”. A good chairperson makes plans to ensure that a meeting is the most effective means of achieving an important aim, that it is conducted skilfully, and that its results are implemented appropriately. A skill indeed, but one that, once mastered, will demonstrate your ability to manage people and complex operations.

The most common form of meeting is one called to programme an operation or monitor its progress and take necessary remedial action. This may be a project such as a new installation, or an ongoing process such as management of health and safety. If you feel moved to call a meeting, ask first what you wish to achieve, and then whether a meeting is the most appropriate means to achieve it. Would it be sufficient to email everyone concerned to explain the issue and invite their thoughts on it? Would a few phone calls get what you want? Do a quick cost/benefit calculation to assess if it is likely to give value for money. And if you consider that a meeting is indeed appropriate, plan it with care.

Determine exactly what you want to achieve and make that clear to everyone you wish to attend, though of course your level of authority will determine how easily you can demand attendance. Ordinarily, invite only people who can contribute in a significant way to your aim, who can bring necessary expertise. If there are people who need only to know what went on at the meeting, send them a copy of the minutes. However, if you are starting a project or have a problem that needs solving, you may feel it prudent to invite people from wider functions, or junior employees who will have to carry out whatever is resolved. An accountant for example may offer a valid solution to an engineering problem but, even if it is impractical, it may prompt an engineer to adapt it to something that will work. People from the shop floor may spot that something will not work in practice, or indeed use their hands-on experience to suggest an excellent solution. After all, professionals and senior executives do not hold a monopoly in useful ideas.

Consider also the when and where of your meeting. First thing in the morning may bring people in before other seemingly more important issues grab their attention. After lunch, people tend to be lethargic. In late afternoon people may be tired, and probably will not wish the meeting to last for too long. Civilised meetings are held around a table in comfortable chairs with relaxing coffee and biscuits, but efficient ones are held standing up with no refreshments. The Queen’s Privy Council meetings are held standing up. Try it — your meetings should then not last too long.

Think carefully about the instructions you give to people before they come to the meeting. Issue an agenda but, instead of just listing topics, write against each exactly what you intend to achieve. Ask people to think about the topic in advance and bring any relevant information, and remonstrate with them if it appears at the meeting that they have not done so. Ask for reports on appropriate topics several days in advance so that you may circulate these for delegates to read before they attend. Although it may take a few meetings, and may make you unpopular for a while, develop a culture that it is unacceptable to come to a meeting inadequately prepared.

Let no one have any doubts but that you are chairing the meeting and determining how it is conducted. You may well have to be dictatorial, but this is acceptable if you are firm, friendly and polite with your colleagues. Consider in advance how you will structure proceedings, bearing in mind the purpose of the meeting. You may wish to give a summary of the situation and then ask someone you have prompted in advance to lead with a report. When the issue has been introduced, allow time for people to have their say. Insist that they speak only when you give permission, that they stick to what is relevant to your aim, and come down hard on anyone who interrupts. Ask interrupters to write down what they wish to say, and promise that they will have opportunity to say it later. When you feel that the key issues have been aired, stop the general discussion and go around the table, asking each member to summarise their view. Then repeat the process to allow everyone to have a final say. Finish the meeting by summarising what you understand to be its result. Allow challenges to your version of the result, but otherwise stop further discussion, thank everyone warmly for their time — even the members who have annoyed you — and close the meeting.

Make sure that the minutes secretary produces an accurate record. If you are in an organisation that requires all conversations to be recorded in some detail, so be it, but otherwise you need to record only the result of the meeting, the broad arguments for reaching it, and what action it now leads to, together with the names of the people who are required take action and their target dates. Send these minutes to all who attended the meeting and to anyone else who is affected by its result with a suggestion that, if they have any queries, they contact you promptly.

Finally, analyse your performance as chairperson. What could have been done better? How can you improve your own performance? You may find it useful to have a debrief now and again with someone who has attended one of your meetings. If you do so with someone you have had difficulty controlling, you may reach a better understanding of each other — and greater mutual respect.

A major problem in meetings — though easily soluble — is people who dominate the conversation to signal their superior knowledge or who ramble into irrelevant topics. You may need to have a word with them privately but, if you must deal with them in the meeting, ask them to summarise their comments in just one sentence. And if that fails to stop them, tell them politely but firmly that they have spoken enough. Clement Attlee said that democracy requires conversation, but it only works if you can make people shut up. The same goes for meetings.