The 5 steps to chairing an effective board meeting (or any meeting really)


Meetings hate vacuums.  When there is a vacuum in a meeting something will rush in to fill it, and that something probably won’t be the most helpful or effective thing to promote the meeting’s success.

I sat in a board meeting a few days ago.  It is very early in this board’s existence and there are no settled or agreed procedures yet.  The meeting started out with a vacuum because the board’s intended chair didn’t turn up, and there was no prior agreement on what would happen in such a case.  The filling of the chair role was batted back and forth for a couple of minutes.  (I couldn’t stick my nose in, because I wasn’t formally on the board.)

The job eventually fell by default to someone with no experience in a situation like this.  The meeting then morphed into the equivalent of a rambling management discussion (despite the prior circulation of a detailed agenda), with the substantial degree of formal business needing to be transacted squashed into a few moments at the end.

If you find yourself in a meeting suffering from such a vacuum, here’s what I suggest:  put up your hand, take the chair, and follow these 5 simple “C’s” to run an effective meeting.

  1. Claim the space.  If everyone has agreed on you taking the chair role, then you have referred power.  Take control immediately and demonstrably, with some appropriate statement like “Right, we’ve got a fair bit of business to get through today, and limited time to do it, so let’s get on with it.”  It doesn’t matter much what you say, as long as it shows you are driving this vehicle.
  2. Champion the agenda.  Presumably an agenda has been circulated before the meeting.  Review it briefly with the meeting participants. Get agreement on whether any changes need to be made to the order of agenda items, and whether there is any other “business”.  Agree where on the agenda any such other business should be dealt with.  Then use the agenda to run the meeting, to keep it on track and to prevent it from being hijacked or diverted.  By getting everyone to sign up to the agenda at the outset, you can legitimately whack them with it if they try and take the meeting off-track.  And if there isn’t an agenda already in existence, don’t even start the meeting until you and the other participants have created one – even if it’s on a whiteboard.
  3. Control the discussion.  Get a proper consideration of each agenda item going.  If necessary have it introduced by someone who knows the background and the reason the matter is up for discussion and/or decision.   Use your claimed chair space to let everyone who wants to make a contribution to have their opportunity.  Feel entitled to require that only one person speaks at a time, and that they get to finish what they are saying before anyone responds.  Intervene if they go on too long or wander off topic.  Remember, you have referred power from the meeting to keep the discussion effective.  If you have to revert to something more formalised to keep the discussion in order, then do so.
  4. Clarify the outcome.  When the discussion on the agenda item has finished and there appears to be agreement on what needs to be done, don’t move on to the next item until you summarise what has been agreed, what actions need to be taken, by whom and by when.  Playing this back to the meeting helps avoid uncertainty about what really happened in the meeting, and minimises the chances of the decision or agreement being white-anted later on.
  5. Close it cleanly.  If you have worked through the whole agenda within the allotted time, check with the participants whether there is anything else which needs to be done, then close the meeting with a note of consensus. If you haven’t finished by the specified time, then get the meeting’s agreement on how much longer can be spent, and what the new agreed closing time is – and then close it at that time.  If the business has been completed, close as before.  If not, get agreement on when and where the next meeting will be, and what items need to be covered.

That’s it, really, the 5 “C’s”.  Well, there are plenty of other nuances in chairing a board meeting, or any meeting.  It’s best done by deploying some EQ along with the rules.

But even a mediocre job is better than the potential chaos that can reign if a meeting vacuum is filled by default.  It’s not just nature that abhors a vacuum.

(image courtesy of

1 Response to “The 5 steps to chairing an effective board meeting (or any meeting really)”

  1. 1 Marsha November 25, 2013 at 6:54 am

    A good reminder about the importance of process to keep a meeting organised in terms of timing and decision-making. I once was on a standing committee where the chair never looked at the agenda–someone else developed it–until he started the meeting. No wonder he always looked surprised!

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