Written by Joseph F.X. Zahra, 23 July 2013
Chairing any meeting is a challenging task, and the burden of responsibility gets heavier when chairing board meetings where decisions are taken that have a direct impact on the business, its prospects, its shareholders and its employees. My experience with chairing boards has given me great satisfaction and a sense of fulfilment in my career, but there were instances of disillusionment and silent despair when the board finds difficulty in being steered in one direction as personalities become more important than projects, performance and results.
One key advice – prepare yourself very well for the meeting. Preparation is critical. The real task of the Chair is conducted outside the board room. Preparation does not only imply setting the meeting’s agenda, collecting your papers etc, but talking to the board members and preparing them for the challenging parts of the agenda where difficult decisions are expected to be taken. And then make sure that action is taken on the decisions made – credibility lies in action and not in words.
You cannot have an effective meeting without in-depth discussion that will lead to credible decisions. Do not be afraid of tension and potential conflict – it shows that board members have their own views and opinion on the matters presented. The worse feeling you can get is that of having puppets around you, or rubber- stamps ready to say yes to whatever you put forward. Challenging debate and discussion is healthy but it needs to be carefully managed. That is after all the role of the Chair.
You have to like people to be a chairperson. You need to be aroused by curiosity in people; you need to understand them, to understand their feelings, their motivation, their character and personality. Two qualities that the chairperson has to have are those of tact and tolerance. Be an orchestra conductor at your best. Be seen that you are professional but you also care.
But make sure you are always courteous while speaking and attentive while listening to what board members have to say. Use your voice well – use the correct tone and volume. Use the correct language, phrases that can be understood and do use humour. Humour deflates tension, and creates a break for relaxation.
Always respect time – time is a very rare resource. Be sensitive to the time allocated to each agenda item. Be flexible if necessary, but also be guided by your watch. People get tired and bored, and you might need to break. Be therefore a careful reader of body language.
Finally, sharpen your gravitas. You have to be, and be perceived to be determined, firm in your ideas and enthusiastic in what you believe in and what you are bringing forward for the members’ consideration. Your energy has to create enthusiasm in members in being attentive, encourages them to participate in discussion and be prepared to take decisions. The job of being a Chair is fulfilling, and people notice it.