UK: Getting to the meet of the matter.

UK: Getting to the meet of the matter. - Whether you gather in the boardroom or are hooked up in the ether, the business meeting is a necessary evil, says Fiona Jebb, and someone has to run it.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Whether you gather in the boardroom or are hooked up in the ether, the business meeting is a necessary evil, says Fiona Jebb, and someone has to run it.

'Meetings are events where ideas are lured in and quietly strangled. Meetings consist of some people who haven't got time to attend, and some who have no need to attend, all led by a person who takes no notice of any of them.'

The description of bad meetings offered by consultant Dick Barton is something of a caricature, but there is some truth buried in the cynicism.

Like taxes, meetings are an unavoidable fact of life in business. But they can be run effectively to find solutions and produce positive action. The following basic points draw on the advice of senior figures experienced in the running of important meetings.

The first rule for the chair of a meeting appears obvious, but frequently is ignored. It is vital that key documents are circulated to all relevant people well in advance of a meeting, so that discussion will be informed and intelligent rather than vague and unfocused. Documents that arrive on desks about five minutes before everyone heads off to the boardroom are of no use at all. And those attending meetings should understand that documents are there to be studied and understood.

The consequences of laziness can be serious. German cynics said Metallgesellschaft's unforeseen financial crisis of the early 1990s was down to the fact that supervisory board members, working in the big banks only a few yards away from the firm's Frankfurt headquarters, didn't have the usual hour-long ride to study company documents before the start of their meetings.

Preparation is not just about making sure papers are distributed in time (or even about policing the length of those documents); it is also about ensuring that the right people, however junior, are invited to the meeting and properly briefed as to the purpose of the gathering - even briefed individually if internal politics are rife.

Not everyone has to attend the entire session. Inviting colleagues in for specific sections of an agenda makes people feel that their time and their comments are valued.

Think about the location and physical environment of the room that will be used for a meeting. As Patrick Dunne, 3i director and author of Running Board Meetings, puts it, 'How can you talk about a company's internet strategy in a room which doesn't have a plug except for a kettle?'

Experienced chairmen say the most important subject for discussion should be item two on the agenda, a running order which allows people to warm up and finish coffee before engaging with the key issues. As participants move towards the end of the agenda, the more tired they get, and the lazier the discussion.

Some items on the agenda will be have been chosen simply for exploratory discussion, others will be issues requiring action. Agenda items should be marked where possible to show whether they are included to produce 'action points' or simply discussion.

Agenda-setting may also entail establishing a time limit for the discussion of each item, although others suggest that this can be less of a benefit than it is a brake on the development of ideas.

Getting a meeting underway successfully is not just a question of starting on time, although that is important. Latecomers should understand that their tardiness is disrespectful of others - and unacceptable.

An efficient chair should always begin by outlining why the meeting is being held, how long it will last and exactly what decisions need to be made. This may be the moment to outline any discussions which, for reasons of sensitivity, do not appear on the agenda and will not be included in the minutes.

Remember, too, that while the tone of the meeting should be business-like, some humour - particularly at the start - may help in getting people to open up.

One of the most difficult issues for a chair - especially those running a meeting attended by more junior and perhaps less-confident colleagues - is to make sure that all participants have their say without any individual(s) being allowed to dominate discussion. Obtaining input from the quieter types is essential if what Dunne describes as 'silent seething' is to be avoided - that is, the fairly common scenario of those who haven't opened their mouths during the course of a meeting starting to gripe about the outcome as soon as they leave the room.

Gently and specifically asking for a contribution from the individual may prove the easiest way of negotiating this hurdle. More diplomacy may be required, however, in silencing the loquacious, even if Sir Bob Reid of Sears does claim that a strong chair can 'just tell them to belt up'.

He continues, 'All you have to do is say, "This is great, but in the real world we need a balanced view and we already understand you very clearly." If you do it once or twice, they get the message.'

If boardroom heavyweights have any advice for those simply attending meetings rather than running them, two recurrent themes emerge: the opportunities which formal meetings present for informal networking at the margins, and the need for a few ground rules - a little self-policing to facilitate the chair's task.

Boiled down, the advice from the top dogs to those wishing to climb the greasy pole is: 'Don't arrive last and leave first; it betrays a certain naivety.' And, after the meeting, always ask yourself just how many times you chipped in with, 'Yes, but ...'

There is one final subversive point to be made about meetings: do they always need to take place at all? While technological 'alternatives' to meeting in the same room may have been hopelessly oversold, it may still be true that a combination of e-mails, conference calls and, on occasion, video-conferencing, may remove the need for physically gathering together.

Think of the time you could save. Think of all those presentations, speeches and devastating interventions you will never need to make.

Think of all the work you might be getting on with instead.

RAYMOND SEITZ, vice-chairman, Lehman Brothers International, Europe, and former US ambassador

The choreography of meetings is very important. You have to make sure you get the order right and create opportunities to work informally around the edge of meetings. A good chairman should certainly make a mental note of who to assail before or after the meeting. And it's not unusual if the chairman gets in touch with all the participants, by phone or in person, both before and after the meeting.

YVE NEWBOLD, partner, Heidrick & Struggles, former company secretary, Hanson, and former chief executive of Pro Ned

It's much better to err on the side of letting someone take up too much time. You can nip and tuck later in the agenda. The chairman shouldn't always strive for marks for neatness. You can be too disciplined. Lord Hanson, for example, was always going to finish at 1pm, even if Hurricane Mitch was at the door.

SIR BOB REID, non-executive chairman of Sears, former chairman and CEO, Shell UK, and former chairman of the British Railways Board

When it comes to discussing detailed or technical matters at board level, what does help is to get the person who really does know about the thing to be present. Most of the people around the table won't know, which is not to say they don't bring their own knowledge or aren't competent. In an operating business, like a railway or an oil company, there is no problem with that. You wouldn't expect the board to know the details of a rig or a track. But when you get to a softer, admin-type operation, it's a different matter.

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