5 Ways to Fail at Leading a Meeting

by Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP
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Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP

The reputation of the president, chairman, or CEO may (unfortunately) depend on his or her ability to run a meeting. Whether the gathering is big or small, scheduled or impromptu, people want the person in charge to preside well. (Warning: If at first the leader doesn’t succeed, he’ll be tuned out or replaced!) So, how can you insure you’ll have the ear of your membership? Here are the top five no-no’s for leading meetings.

1. Start Late

Nothing tells members that you don’t value their time like starting late. If your agenda says the meeting starts at noon, then start at noon, not 12:01. Punctuality bolsters your attempts to follow parliamentary procedure.

In my experience as a parliamentarian, meetings tend to start late for two main reasons: (1) an essential person is unprepared, or (2) members are late. The solution to both is simply to establish a pattern of starting on time.

I’ve learned that if a presiding officer or president establishes a reputation of starting on time, people will be present and prepared. Several years ago, I helped a board that had a reputation for never starting on time. Members and staff would saunter into the meeting room at a relaxed pace, a fair amount of socializing would occur, and the president would wait to call the meeting to order until enough individuals were in attendance. This practice lasted (and became progressively worse) until the group elected a new president, who promptly announced that he would start the meetings on time. The first board meeting was rough; plenty of members walked in after the meeting had already started. But it didn’t take long for people to learn and adapt, and the meetings became much more efficient as a result.

2. Ignore the Agenda

Agendas exist for a reason. At a minimum they inform members which topics will be discussed and in what order—a basic Robert’s Rules concept and a wise one. Presiding officers who ignore the agenda create a fertile environment for confusion and for individual members to take control of a meeting. Instead, a presiding officer should do the following:

  • Participate in creating the agenda. Even if staff are responsible for constructing an initial draft, a presiding officer should ask to see this draft several days before the meeting and should review and comment on it. In any event, the presiding officer should know the agenda better than anyone and understand both its substance and the reasons for the order of the topics.
  • Follow the agenda. Especially in board and committee meetings, members often want to veer from the agenda by either re-ordering the topics or adding additional ones. The presiding officer should resist the temptation to let this happen without the group’s approval. When making shifts to an agenda seems appropriate and necessary, the presiding officer should put the suggestion to the group for their consent. Doing otherwise communicates that one member’s “agenda” is more important than everyone else’s.

3. Confuse the Members

Members are generally confused for one main reason: They don’t know what motion is on the floor. And it’s the presiding officer’s job to fix this by repeating ad nauseum the motion that’s before the group. Repeat it right after it’s seconded, repeat it again during debate, repeat it again if there’s an amendment, and repeat it again before taking a vote. Just repeat it – because no matter how clear you think you’ve been, there’s at least one member who hasn’t been paying attention and is confused. And it’s that member that will take up everyone’s time with off-topic discussion or who will vote “no” when he or she actually meant to vote “yes”! Keeping everyone on the same page by constantly clarifying what topic is before the group is a great way to save time and keep the meeting moving.

4. Facilitate Endless, Undirected Discussion

Leaders need to stick to three simple rules if they want to facilitate meaningful, efficient discussion:

  • No one speaks unless they are recognized.
  • Only one person speaks at a time.
  • Speakers may discuss only the issue that’s on the floor.

5. Show Favoritism

No one likes everybody, but when you’re leading a meeting, you have to fake it. Simply put, you have to make each member feel as if his or her view and vote is just as valuable as every other member’s. One way to communicate equality is by recognizing each member in a neutral fashion.  For example, saying, “The Chair recognizes the member at microphone #1,” instead of, “The Chair recognizes Ms. Jones.”  If you call Ms. Jones by name but not the member that comes after her, your personal address (even if innocent) implies that you favor Ms. Jones. A second way to communicate equality is by refraining from engaging in discussion or commenting on any member’s points in discussion. Best practice is to simply follow each member’s remarks with, “Thank you. Is there any further discussion?”  A final way to communicate equality is by alternating your recognition of speakers in favor of a motion and opposed to a motion. Repeatedly recognizing speakers on one side of an issue gives the impression that you want the group to hear only from that side.

Success in leading meetings hinges on careful prep, clear communication, and impartiality. Don’t mess it up! Establish a reputation of strong leadership and organization when you’re up in front.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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