As the subtitle says, it’s in essence a practical guide: ‘how to guide groups and manage meetings’. Its aim is to help people who find themselves in the position of Chair to learn the craft and become successful.
Strangely little has been written about chairing, considering what a common activity it is, and what a tricky thing it is to do really well. The awkward truth about being in the chair is that you have the responsibility – for making sure that the group or meeting is effective – but you don’t necessarily have the executive power. A lot depends on persuasion and influence, not on issuing commands. As the Foreword says,
The important thing about Chairs is that the power they exercise is not concentrated or unconstrained. It’s qualified, and shared with others – the members of the group they lead. Even when vested with real power a Chair may choose not to wield them, but to rely on other means of influence.
An anthropologist friend recently reminded me that this kind of power has ancient roots. Anthropologists call it ‘acepalous’ (literally, ‘headless’) power and have studied it at work in traditional societies in sub-Saharan Africa.
There was room, I thought, for a book that took a new, contemporary look at what’s needed to be a good Chair. The classic books about chairing belong to another age. Walter Citrine’s The ABC of chairmanship is devoted mainly to the intricacies of motions, amendments and votes in formal meetings (much less common now), and assumes that a Chair can command dignity and respect that can’t be taken for granted in today’s less deferential society.
The original title of Citrine’s book, incidentally, was The Labour chairman (1921), and it’s interesting that most of the ‘classic’ chairing texts emanated from the labour movement. Here chairing is seen as an essential part of a democratic and egalitarian way of doing business. Political parties, trade unions, community groups and other bodies for whom ‘equality of voice’ is important have always appreciated the value of a Chair who can put that principle into action.
Another characteristic of books on chairing, contemporary as well as traditional, is that they concentrate exclusively on meetings. While it’s true that we associate the role mainly with presiding over meetings, what Chairs do more broadly is look after groups. So I spend a lot of time discussing how chairs behave outside the meeting room, and how Chairs can affect the aims, composition and social dynamic of the groups they’re responsible for. A good Chair doesn’t just turn up, go through the agenda and forget about the group until the next meeting.
Unsurprisingly, the central contention of the book is that chairing is a set of skills that can be acquired, not the product of an aptitude given to you by nature. I identify a core set of such skills – attentiveness, empathy, integrity, acumen and leadership – and suggest why and how each is useful.
The central part of the book is about meetings. A whole chapter is given over to preparing for them, and if there’s one single word of advice that should be given to any novice Chair, that word is ‘Prepare!’ Preparing yourself is probably the most important thing to do. The following chapters deal with the mechanics of meetings, for example, standard agenda items and how to treat them, and with the dynamics: how to influence the direction, flow and understanding of discussion, and how to arrive at decisions and follow them up. Advice is given on how to deal with conflict and with troublesome group members – those who interrupt, nit-pick, undermine, speak to excess, refuse to participate, or behave obstructively and negatively.
There’s one kind of chair that, though it may look comfortably large and well-padded (and may even bring remuneration), can prove a hard place for its occupant. The Chair of a Board – the Board of a company or of a public institution or charity – faces a host of extra responsibilities, many of them legal, financial and formal. Very often these responsibilities are shared not just with other members of the Board but with a Chief Executive. The ‘organic chemistry’ between a Board Chair and a Chief Executive is a subtle one, not easily captured in definition and regulations. Mostly the relationship will be close – though it should not be excessively close – and constructive. But from time to time it can go wrong, sometimes publicly and spectacularly. So a chapter is devoted to Boards and Chief Executives.
Another looks more briefly at how to chair special kinds of groups and meetings: formal meetings, annual meetings, conferences, public meetings, appointment panels, and quasi-judicial meetings. There’s advice on facilitation, a specialist kind of chairing. Another section – unique, I think, in books on chairing, and of special interest to us here in Wales – suggests how to manage bilingual and multilingual meetings. And finally, some advice on a particularly difficult task, chairing remote meetings: teleconferences and videoconferences.
Practical books can easily become over-didactic: a string of do’s and don’ts that no one would wish to read through from cover to cover. I’ve tried to avoid this, first by writing the book in what I hope is a diverting and un-po-faced way, and second by introducing cartoons (by Juta Tirona, not in the e-book version), quotations and invented snatches of dialogue to illustrate points in the text. But the book can also be used as a reference book, and I’ve supplied it with a full index (the compiling of which reignited an ancient and obscure delight in that craft).
Writing In the chair has been very enjoyable. It’s also been enlightening. It’s forced me to think about my own 40 year history of chairing (and being chaired) and how I could have made a better fist of the job – if only I’d had some decent advice at the time!
In the chair is available through Amazon’s Kindle store from 1 August 2014. The paperback version will be available in early September 2014, and can be pre-ordered now. ‘An excellent guide for those who perform that most under-rated and important of roles: chairing a group’ (Robert Peston).
In the chair: how to guide groups and manage meetings.
Cardigan: Parthian Books, 2014.
Sites That Link to this Post
- New book release “In the Chair” by Andrew Green | WHELF | August 4, 2014