HOW TO BE A GOOD CHAIRMAN
For example, I was recently chairing a selection panel for the Irish Research Council and the challenge was in ensuring that every assessor got the opportunity to give their opinion on the subject whilst, at the same time, ensuring that we kept to a strict timetable and, more importantly, had consistency across every submission being considered. This was a task that was never going to be easy with a group of highly intelligent and articulate academics who want to provide a full report on every submission.
Fortunately, I have previously undertaken specific courses for such a role and the group successfully achieved everything on the day. However, conversations with colleagues who have acted as chairs suggest that the vast majority never have had previous training and tend to learn from observing others in the same position when they are members of a group or a committee.
That is why a new book from Andrew Green, the former director of the National Library of Wales, is long overdue.
Entitled “In the chair - How to guide groups and manage meetings”, it is a practical, up-to-date and comprehensive guide to how to become the successful chair of all types of bodies from company boards to community groups to committees within your own organisation.
It is a compelling read as it examines the qualities and skills that are needed by such individuals, relationships with others on the board or committee, how to prepare and conduct meetings and, most importantly of all, how to arrive at decisions
So what are the vital lessons that emerge from the book?
First of all, it is important to adopt the mantra of the Scout Movement namely ‘be prepared’. Whilst those acting as chairs must do their homework on the aims of the group, they must also consider their own role, their expectations and what they want to emerge from the group’s discussions.
However, this is not a solo effort and understanding the thinking of other group members and how they interact with each other will be critical in ensuring that the aims of the group are met over time.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of chairing meetings is the neutral stance that must be taken in any discussion whilst ensuring that everyone gets the opportunity to make a contribution and just not only those who speak loudest. Indeed, being fair to all members whilst maintaining control over the meeting will ensure that the group can move towards a clear decision without any issues.
That is not to say that there won’t be problems as the role of the chair is not to sit there quietly whilst moving down the agenda but to intervene when required in a discussion either to aid understanding or to deal with conflicts between members of the group which can happen frequently.
A key skill is how to avoid bad or easy conclusions from so-called groupthink, something I have seen far too often when a simple solution is in the interest of one or two members of the group. Therefore, the role of a chair is not only to challenge and summarise the conclusions of any discussion but to find out how committed the group members are to the direction of travel. It is therefore important that everyone understands the decisions that have been reached, how and when they will be implemented and by whom.
For many, chairing a meeting will be about balancing the management of the group but for some, the role of chair may include having responsibility for the chief executive of an organisation. In this respect, it is important that whilst there is a close understanding between both parties, there also has to be some distance in the relationship and, more importantly, the chair mustn’t be afraid to act if there are problems.
This is a difficult balancing act but one that is vital if the relationship is to work for the benefit of the organisation. In fact, there have been a number of recent examples in Wales where this has not happened. As a result, there have been problems either because the chair has had a terrible relationship with their chief executive or, worst still, the chair has ignored evidence on problems within the organisation and has instead just blindly backed the chief executive’s position.
There is also the challenge for those chairs who have been previously been chief executives of organisations as there is a tendency to want to act in the same way again, thus undermining the current incumbent and resulting in serious consequences for the organisation as a whole. Again, there have numerous examples of this happening in Welsh public life where many chairs of bodies are former or current chief executives themselves.
Therefore, the job of chairing an organisation, regardless of size or sector, is not an easy job. However I can honestly say that from my own experiences, it can be a fulfilling and enjoyable task that adds enormously to your professional life. Certainly, the key lesson is that chairing skills can always be improved and this book from Andrew Green is a guide that can help both novice and experienced chairs to fulfil their potential in this role over time.