Meet and drink

Nothing wastes as much time or causes as much frustration as
poor management of meetings. Many social care organisations are
caught in cycles of unnecessary, unproductive and expensive
meetings. We have possibly all seen managers whose skills wouldn’t
give you confidence that they could run a bath, never mind a good

Yet meetings can be crucial to effective and inclusive
decision-making. How do you get the balance right?

Two factors are critical. First, the meeting must have a clear
purpose and one that can be achieved – and only achieved – through
a meeting. Usually this involves reaching a decision about
something which must be owned or informed by a variety of
participants. Sometimes information exchange and
relationship-building are also important by-products or secondary

Second, it must be properly managed. Over the years, we have
regretted not using formal but friendly meeting management such as
agreeing a chairperson, setting an agenda and taking minutes.
Rarely is this inappropriate. If you do not need a record of the
meeting, why have it? With no chair, who will hold the ring, ensure
fairness and manage the process?

Chairing a meeting is fundamental to its success, and is different
from leadership. Many chief executives or directors make poor
chairs because they try to direct meetings towards specific
conclusions they favour rather than managing the meeting and
bringing in different views.

The chairperson does, however, need the authority to keep the
meeting to time, cut discussion short and summarise, and direct the
meeting towards its conclusions. Chairs must therefore be carefully
selected – and organisations should bear in mind that the role is a
trainable skill.

The environment of meetings is also critical, especially large
meetings or those with public participation. Heating, lighting,
chair arrangements, refreshments and so on are crucial to the way
players will perceive the meeting and its relevance.

When chairing a meeting, it’s worth sitting where you can see the
whites of all participants’ eyes. Not only are you then better able
to see who wants to speak, but you can also pick up the mood and
make your presence felt more easily. Shifting furniture around also
helps get the tone right for the sort of meeting to be held. An
open, exploratory session is often better without tables – unlike a
session where you’re thrashing out the budget and a table may
helpfully keep people apart.

Etiquette’s important. Sometimes basic good manners are forgotten.
Be sure to bring the papers that staff have prepared – don’t expect
more copies to be handed out at the meeting. Make new people
comfortable by warmly welcoming them and doing introductions.
Advise latecomers (at least those with good excuses) where the tea
and coffee is. Show people you’re interested in what they’re saying
by visibly making a note of their key points (even if destined for
the bin afterwards). Ask if anyone has difficulties staying for the
whole meeting, and be ready to bring some matters forward so that
the right people can take part if necessary. Don’t leave people
fearing the embarrassment of getting up to leave.

And when things get rough? First, remember that those not involved
watch to see how you handle hot tempers. Handle the situation well
and you get people on your side; handle it badly and you can end up
on your own. Why not seek out feedback from a trusted colleague
after particularly difficult meetings?

Good managers certainly want people to go away feeling their
valuable time has been well used. So look out for when a discussion
becomes relevant to only two or three people, and suggest the
matter’s better resolved afterwards separately. This will be
appreciated all round.

Another way of respecting people’s time is to agree roughly how
much time should be allocated to what areas of discussion. Some
managers very effectively allocate half the time for “business”
items (needing decision but not prolonged debate) and half for one
or two “thinking” ones, where fuller reflection and sharing of
ideas is needed.

Attention to meeting management can pay huge dividends in the
effectiveness and efficiency of decision making, leading ultimately
to better outcomes for clients.

Tony Hunter is director of social services, housing and public
protection, East Riding of Yorkshire Council. Andrew McCulloch is
chief executive of Mental Health Foundation.

Top tips

  • Have a clear purpose and make people’s role clear
  • Ensure people’s comfort
  • Sit at the position of maximum vision and influence (rebuffing
    any suggestions you’re a control freak)
  • Have a clear agenda whether formal or set by the meeting at the
  • Keep to time
  • Ensure everybody is heard
  • Challenge the issue, not the person, if you really want to make

Rubbish tips

  • Invite everybody to ensure no one is excluded
  • Minutes and agendas are for bureaucrats
  • Let the meeting chair itself
  • Save money on venue and refreshments – we are there to
  • Good decisions must be sweated over

If you have a management problem – our panel is here to

John Belcher, chief executive, Anchor Housing Trust
Christine Doorly, regional manager, National Care Standards
Anthony Douglas, director of social care and health, Suffolk
Sheena Doyle, programme manager, Children’s Society
Jane Held, director of social services, London borough of
Tony Hunter, director of social services, East Riding
Steve Jenkin, chief executive, Elizabeth FitzRoy Support
Des Kelly, director, BUPA partnerships
Andrew McCulloch, chief executive, Mental Health Foundation
Daphne Obang, director of social services and housing, Bracknell
Vijay Patel, consultant, voluntary sector
Mike Pinnock, policy, planning and performance manager, North
Jill Reynolds, Open University
Claire Smart, purchasing manager, Gloucestershire social
Kathryn Stone, director, Voice UK
Martin Willis, programme director, INLOGOV, Birmingham

If you have a case study that you would like our panel to
consider, please call Graham Hopkins on 020 8652 3106 or e-mail   

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