The Cat Herding Skills of an Effective Chair

The duties of a committee Chair are a hot topic in our household at the moment. I’ve recently become the Chair of trustees for a charity I set up in the autumn (the subject of another blog) and Mike, my husband, was appointed the Chair of governors for our local Catholic secondary school a few weeks ago.

The Chair’s role is a crucial one when you think that a two hour meeting with 12 committee members amounts to 24 hours, a whole day’s worth of time. There’s nothing like a poorly run, excessively long winded meeting to de-motivate committee members who are, after all, giving their time for free.

Really good Chairs make the tricky job of controlling a committee meeting look easy – but of course anyone who’s had that role knows it isn’t! Whilst a Chair needs to prepare in advance of the meeting, and ensure the realistically set agenda is achieved, a key and challenging responsibility is to manage the people side of the process; hence my reference to herding cats.

Committee meetings are one of the key ways in which the governing body of a charity or a school makes decisions and carries out its role, so it’s essential that meetings are effectively run, with committee members asking challenging questions about the organisation, entering into informed and at times lively debate and making decisions collectively.

There are common types of committee members, which you may well recognise within your own committees, who need assertive but diplomatic handling:

The talkative person who insists on going into too much detail and veers off on a favourite ‘hobby horse’ which is totally irrelevant. My favourite phrase when this happens is to butt in when they are drawing breath and say, “Thanks for that Fred, now moving on”.

The opposite extreme is the timid person who may be nervous about voicing their ideas. This can happen when it’s a service-user trustee in a room of high-powered, business people. Using the round robin technique, where each person has a brief amount of time to give their views, can be a good way of resolving this problem.

The argumentative committee member is the one who regularly disagrees with other’s opinions, although it can be useful to have vigorous debate with a devil’s advocate voicing an alternative viewpoint. This is usually the gist of what I say when I encounter this type of behaviour, and I thank the person for taking this stance as it requires others to explain and evidence their particular views. This is a good way of taking back control of the meeting, especially if discussions are getting heated, and potentially disarming the committee member. A brief summary of arguments for and against an issue can be useful at this point.

The inconsiderate committee member is the one who jumps in with their comments, without permission from the Chair, often interrupting the current speaker. Such a committee member may ask a question of a colleague, and then proceed to respond to this, engaging in a conversation, again without reference to the Chair. An interjection from the Chair at this point, reminding people to speak through the Chair, should help resolve this issue. An alternate strategy is to have a quiet word with the committee member at the break.

On the rare occasion that two committee members start arguing vociferously, making potentially personal remarks, then call a short comfort break to help diffuse the atmosphere. Speak to each culprit separately and explain this is unacceptable behaviour.

One way to reduce the likelihood of any of these situations occurring is for the Chair to remind trustees, in his/her introductory welcome, of the meeting etiquette or code of conduct ie keep comments brief and relevant; actively participate; speak through the Chair; respect other’s views; and refrain from making personal remarks.

A Chair should always look to develop his or her skills so it’s good practice to get into the habit of reflecting on your performance after each meeting. What went well and what could you have done better in terms of managing committee members? No matter how experienced you are a Chair, there are always improvements you can make. You could also ask an experienced committee member for their constructive feedback on how effectively they felt the meeting was run.

If you think your organisation’s Chair, or your committee, needs a refresher on how to conduct effective meetings, including the people management element, then just get in touch to talk about the training courses I can deliver on these topics. This could be delivered as a short taster session immediately before your committee meeting.

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