At some point in your academic career you will find yourself having to chair one or more committees. While some people are naturally drawn to this sort of activity, for others it can be a burden. However, there are ways in which you can make chairing a committee as painless and efficient an activity as possible, as follows:
1. Set an agenda
The agenda is the single most important tool you have as a committee chair for ensuring a smooth meeting. Circulate an agenda to committee members in good time before the meeting, giving them the opportunity to add to or amend it where appropriate. In this way you will enable committee members to prepare for the meeting, rather than taking them unawares with items of discussion, which they may feel they need more time to consider.
2. Allocate time to agenda items
Before you begin the meeting, make sure you set a clearly defined time frame for it to take place in. Try not to leave meetings open-ended: academics have many commitments in a working day, and stress will be increased for all if people feel they cannot predict when a meeting will be over. In addition, before the meeting begins, it can be helpful if you decide on the relative importance of each agenda item, and mentally allocate a certain amount of time to each item accordingly. This will help you to stay on time, and to limit discussion where necessary; in turn, committee members may be more cooperative if they trust that the meeting will not overrun.
3. Be clear and decisive
It is your job not only to keep discussion focused, but to listen carefully, to summarize clearly and to make well-informed and firm decisions. You must listen attentively to all views expressed in order to then articulate a clear, accurate and impartial summary of the discussion.
Decisions can be taken either by members arriving at a consensus through a vote, or by your taking an executive decision. Either way, remember that your job is to steer the decision-making process impartially, and then to articulate the reasons for the decision clearly.
Do not allow an item to drift or decisions to be postponed. Be very clear about stating when a decision has been reached, what it is, and what action will follow from it. Then move on to the next agenda item; do not allow discussion to return to it in subsequent items.
4. Manage difficult discussions
Committee meetings can be difficult to manage if one or more individuals attempts to dominate discussion, or if personal conflicts arise. Make sure that you actively invite those who are more reticent to have their say, and that they are not interrupted. Consider memorizing useful phrases to curtail attempts to sway the agenda. If necessary, seek out training within your own institution on people management skills.
5. Build continuity
Ensure that a written record is kept of all meetings, and that this is circulated, with the agenda, in good time before the following meeting. (Do not attempt to take minutes and to chair a meeting at the same time – your efforts should be focused on guiding the discussion, not on recording it). Give the group an opportunity to ratify the minutes of the previous meeting at the start of each new meeting. Again, this encourages a feeling of ownership of decisions, and increases goodwill.
Keeping accurate minutes will enable you to build a valuable record of the committee’s activity for those who might succeed you. It will also enable you to remind other committee members of their responsibilities. Following through in this way will help you keep the committee’s business on track.
6. Be comfortable
Finally, make sure that the meeting venue is comfortable and convenient. Remember that both you and your fellow committee members can only concentrate for limited periods. If a meeting is likely to continue for hours at a time, they (and you!) will need a break – many a meeting has been vastly improved by a five-minute leg stretch and the chance to have a cup of tea!