Keeping Meetings On Track

There’s nothing more frustrating than a meeting that goes on and on and on. In Rwanda, whether in government or private sector offices, Monday mornings are dedicated to management meetings.

Often, you call senior officers in both public and private institutions and are met with the standard ring tone that continues for eternity. Inevitably, the senior officer will send you text message telling you that, once again, they are held up in a meeting. When you call three hours later, you receive the same response. This begs us to ask the question, how can meetings be brief, productive and well-structured? How can management meetings stay on track?

It is the chairperson’s job to make sure meeting participants stay focused and refrain from the unending monologues that are quite common here in Rwanda. But how can you keep people focused without being dictatorial or suffocating creativity? Here are a few tips of how to make meetings productive and on track:

Set the meeting’s intention in advance: what exactly do you want to accomplish?

“Organizations are moving faster and faster these days and few managers have time to think through their meetings in advance,” says Roger Schwarz, an organizational psychologist and author of Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams.

As Chairperson, ensure that the agenda and materials to be discussed are sent to the meeting participants before the meeting, so that participants know what will be discussed. You can head off a lot of problems by stating the reason for getting together right up front.

The participants

Ensure that the meeting is attended only by those who need to be present. If there are too many participants in the meeting room, they will not be attentive, and you risk losing control of the agenda.

Role of the chairperson

As chairperson, you have to walk your talk. Ensure you are on time. Welcome remarks should be clear and precise. State the purpose of the meeting. Follow the Agenda; you should have firm control – clear and decisive authority, stick to the agreed order of business. Guide participation – involve everyone and keep the meeting moving forward.

Manage the meeting participants and make careful transitions

As chairperson, you should be an impartial arbiter. Listen to others first and speak last. Control controversy or problematic attendees and intervene as necessary. Ensure there is a smooth transition and that the participants have finished one agenda item before moving to another. We have seen meetings where the chairperson moves from agenda items when he or she is ready without consideration of whether the meeting participants are following. “Typically leaders go from topic to topic, moving ahead when they’re ready to,” says Schwarz. “But people don’t always move with you and they may get stuck in the past.” Before you transition from one agenda item to another, ask if everyone is finished with the current topic. “You need to give people enough air time,” says Pozen. This will help keep the conversation focused.

Meeting closure

As chairperson, ensure that the meeting ends on the right note to set the stage for work to continue. Most often we have seen meetings drag on so many hours and suddenly be brought to an abrupt end by the chairperson or have him or her leave the meeting before it ends. As chairperson, before meeting closure, ensure that resolutions are reached, identify next steps, assign roles and responsibility and define timelines for when action points should be acted upon. This ensures accountability and avoids meeting participants saying they were not part of the resolutions taken during the meeting.