Most of my day to day work at the office involves meeting with other people. Sometimes are more of a “one to one” thing whilst in other occasions meetings become a crazy get together with more than 10 people sitting around the table… or on the phone lines, as we live in the era of conference calls and videoconferences.

The first meetings I chaired were not very successful. Managing a room full of people to listen, engage in the conversation and agree a way forward was challenging. Some of the meeting attendees were more senior than I was, others would question everything and there would be last minute no shows that even threatened value of the meeting.

meeting room empty chairs

I always have been very open and honest with my mentors and my life steerco about my strengths and weaknesses. I believe that everything can be learnt and improved if you put the right amount of effort and stamina towards your development. Chairing meetings was an concern but I was certain that I would not let that stop me. The first step I took was to ask for more meetings to chair, so I could practice, repeat and rehearse as many times as I could.

After 10+ years in a highly corporate environment and with an average of 2 meetings a day, I must have managed four thousand conferences, discussions, catch ups and sessions. This is what I have learnt.

Four thousand meetings after…

learning and working up the corporate ladder

Ensure the meeting has a purpose

When I send the invitation to the meeting attendees, the sentence I repeat without exception is “the purpose of this meeting is to…” and then I follow by some agenda points if necessary.

This sentence is my meeting opener too. I will say hello to everyone, call out everyone name’s to make sure they are there (as well as for the benefit of remote attendees that cannot see who is in the room or on the phone lines) and then take a deep breath before I state the purpose of the meeting.

Follow the structure: context, outcome, options agreement

After I have clarified to all the attendees the purpose of the session, I follow the same meeting structure each time. I speak briefly about the context, then I explain what is the outcome that I expect to get from the meeting. If I know which options are available to decide from, I will describe them. If I don’t, I will open the line for people to brainstorm with me which options we have. Finally, I will ask the attendees whether they are happy to agree an option of whether a follow up is needed to analyse our preferred way forward.

Ask to all the attendees their opinion, even the quiet ones

Some people tend to be quiet in the background and as a char, it is my job to ensure that everyone expresses their views and concerns. At the beginning I was afraid to ask people to speak up in the open and I still approach this as softly as I can. For example, rather than asking “hey X, what do you think” I usually go with “X, I am really keen to hear your views, any thoughts at this stage?”

Take notes, scribble actions and follow ups

Chairing a meeting and taking notes at the same time is not the easiest. I would recommend to have someone with you at the session to write down actions, follow ups, concerns, anything! However this is not always possible, so I got used to do it at the same time – even if only me can understand the bad handwriting after the discussion.

You are the chair and this is your meeting

Sometimes the chat will go off topic or people would get tangled in a specific point. Allow your attendees some freedom but if you see that the group is not moving towards an agreement, don’t be afraid to own your meeting.

Tell them that it is a very interesting and rich conversation, but you are conscious of time and unfortunately the meeting needs to move on to the next point. Agree to take offline aspects that are not related to the subject you are discussing. Bring them back to the meeting purpose by clarifying to them as many times as necessary the objective of the session.

Summarise the meeting

You opened the meeting and you must close it. Once the conversation comes to an end, condense the chat in three or four key points. Repeat the purpose of the meeting, the options that were discussed and the agreement that attendees have come to. Ask if someone thinks you have missed or misunderstood something.

Next Steps

Explain to the attendees on the call or the room what will happen next. For example, you will send meeting actions to the rightful owners or set up a follow up session. You might act on the agreement that the attendees have reached and start a piece of work, send something to someone or progressing a new idea. Make sure they know what is the next move and when possible, document this.

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