Adviser: Meetings – an education in themselves

Link: Small practice guide

Perhaps it’s just old age, but I find myself getting more and more cantankerous and intemperate in meetings that lose their focus. Why, oh why, don’t they teach us all how to run effective meetings at school? If education is about preparation for life, surely this skill must rank number one in the skills used in everybody’s work?

There are many reasons why meetings fail, and not all can be laid at the feet of the chairman, although a lack of proper control is probably the most common failing.

Sometimes the reason for the meeting is unclear, and it’s just another monthly or quarterly meeting that had to be arranged in advance in case something came up, and nobody had the bottle to say that it had become unnecessary!

Other times the wrong people are there, there’s too much or too little information. Occasionally the chairs are just too uncomfortable!

Personally, I like agendas that have time limits of around two hours maximum, with the first third being taken up with easy, routine and brief items, the most difficult topics in the middle, and then a little light relief at the end, upbeat items or interesting external speakers.

As a chairman, nothing irritates more than participants who haven’t read the papers, and expect to catch up in the meeting, or even worse, participants who think they are so clever that they can write memos and letters in the middle of the meeting, while purportedly listening and contributing to the discussion.

Good meetings depend as much on the participants behaving properly as they do on an effective chairman.

As an inveterate people-watcher, I find it fascinating what people give away in meetings involuntarily.

When my partners lean back, I know volunteers will be hard to come by; the participant whose hand is over his or her mouth is probably itching to say something, but for whatever reason can’t bring themselves to do so; scratching of the nose while talking can often mean the speaker doesn’t really believe in what he’s saying. Of course, you have to be careful using these signals, but it’s fascinating how often they turn out to be indicative of unspoken thoughts.

Every meeting, though, is made up of individual items, any one of which can derail the agenda. The best chairmen I have served under always clarify the purpose of each item, state how long the discussion on that topic is going to take, start the discussion positively, and seem to be able to deal with each item a little differently to keep the interest alive.

Would that we all had that natural ability, but unfortunately most of us have to learn these techniques. Surely it’s not too much to ask schools to teach us?

  • Mark Spofforth is an ICAEW council member and partner at Spofforths.

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