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Being Chair: Are You Ready?

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Meetings: You may have had the floor, you may have had a significant seat at the table, but what about taking “the chair”…are you ready?

Passion and Experience

First of all, those with an air of nonchalance need not apply. Dr. Frank Kelly, Chair of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons Communications Cabinet, states, “It is important that the person stepping into the role of chair be passionate about what it is that the committee is addressing. Being chair takes a substantial amount of one’s time and energy, so you need the excitement to carry you through. And of course, you need to know of what you speak, i.e., you must have accumulated a certain level of knowledge about—and experience with—the issues at hand.”

Dr. William P. Cooney, Chair of the Orthopaedic Research and Educational Foundation Board of Trustees, has chaired meetings for over 30 years. This voice of experience notes, “The chair should know all the facts on the subject at hand or have people present who do. You are the leader, and if your information base is lacking, you must take the time to read the literature and talk with informed sources.”

On a procedural note, says Dr. Kelly, you should also consult what some consider the bible of meeting processes, namely, Robert’s Rules of Order. “This guide to running meetings and conferences has practical information about, for example, when a motion is allowed, when you can table an issue, etc. These are traditional parliamentary procedures that can greatly contribute to a smooth gathering.”

Get Organized

Yet meetings can at times be unpredictable. So, says Dr. Kelly, the chair should inject as much order as possible beforehand. “The chair must be extremely well organized and should plan the meeting agenda in advance after soliciting input from others. As soon as one meeting is finished, then you should begin outlining the agenda for the next meeting. I’ve also found it helpful to point out to attendees that we need to be punctual and start the meeting on time. Think ahead in order to ensure that you have all the necessary resources such as audiovisual equipment, microphone, etc. Afterwards, you should get the minutes together as soon as possible. That will help facilitate the work that everyone has to do between meetings.”

Dr. Cooney emphasizes, “The agenda for the meeting should be precise and clear to all. Making everyone aware of the start and end times—and holding them to it—is critical. Do not have an open ended meeting...the things you and others will have to handle will mushroom beyond what can be reasonably accomplished. Again, keep the agenda items short and specific.”

Be Diplomatic

When sitting as chair, the goal is not to show that you were captain of your college debate team. In fact, you must walk the line between passion and diplomacy. Dr. Kelly: “It really helps if you are a ‘people person’ and can get things done without stepping on people’s toes (egos). At times delicate issues are being addressed and you could have 17 people with 17 different opinions. I have seen conflict handled in many ways through the years. One of the fundamentals is that it is important that both sides of the argument be given a fair hearing. Committee members need to feel as if their viewpoints are being respected. This is basic courtesy, yes, but it’s also true that feeling heard and involved makes people want to give their best.”

With an eye toward fairness, Dr. Cooney states,

Allow all members to speak and be attuned to which people are not participating; call on those not speaking to provide an opinion. Keeping everyone focused and not letting individuals ramble or have their own agendas is very challenging at times. But don’t be tempted to dominate the meeting. You might miss out on valuable input and you could end up with some resentful committee members. It’s a balancing act.

And what if you don’t reach a meeting of the minds? “One of the most effective ways of diffusing conflict, ” advises Dr. Kelly, “is through the use of humor; it also helps move things along and keep everyone on track. After injecting some levity into the situation, you can say, for example, ‘We can’t solve this issue now but we can form a task force to look into it further. Perhaps you might like to participate on the task force or subcommittee.’”

To the point of time management, Dr. Kelly states, “Learning to allocate the appropriate amount of time for a certain topic is an art. You may think that a given topic will not generate much discussion, but then things take on a life of their own, and it becomes obvious that there are a lot of different sides to the issue. This gets to the fact that keeping things moving is probably the most difficult task that a chair faces.”

“On occasion you have someone who likes to dominate the conversation or to change the topic, ” says Dr. Kelly. “In such a situation, I recommend that you let the person speak, but not go off on a 10 minute dissertation. You can say, ‘This is an important issue and we may have time to discuss it at the end of the meeting. If not, we can address it at the next meeting or form a task force to look into it further.’ If this individual has developed a habit of ‘holding court, ’ the appropriate step is to speak with him or her between meetings and say that you appreciate their opinion, but that it’s important that others have enough time to give their input as well.”

It is also prudent, says Dr. Kelly, to handle other issues between the meetings. “Things like conference calls and webinars can go a long way toward streamlining your work as chair. If you have a task force looking at a specific issue, then you can do calls with a subgroup of the committee, decide what the most relevant issues are and how they should be approached.”

Regarding when you should be flexible and when you should stick to your own counsel, Dr. Kelly states,

The hallmark of a good committee chair is someone who knows not to railroad an issue through. Taking my own practice as an example, every meeting we have budgetary issues. Some individuals are very fiscally conservative, and I have learned to appreciate their viewpoint. On several occasions I have found that being flexible and not spending money that I likely would have spent has been a plus. I am grateful that I listened to those in our practice who are financially conservative.

Yes, hubris is best left at the door, says Dr. Kelly. “There are times when I’ve met with AAOS staff members who are more knowledgeable than the members of the committee…and they have fairly definite opinions about what has worked in the past and what would work in xyz situation. If you have access to such experienced individuals, be willing to listen to them—it’s not their first rodeo. Now, if I feel very strongly about an issue because my past experience has lent me some wisdom in that particular area, I might say to those who are opposed, ‘We have tried your suggestions, but they didn’t take us where we need to go. Now let’s try this.’”

Are You Ready?

And how do you know whether you are ready and/or right for the big chair? Dr. Cooney: “You are ready to become chair if your experience with meetings tells you that you can handle the demands of orderly discussion, statement of facts, drawing conclusions and the need to take action. You should be someone who is action oriented; ultimately, a meeting without an action-oriented outcome is not a good use of time.”

Dr. Kelly adds, “If you are someone with a young family, and your time is more limited, then perhaps you won’t have enough time to devote to chairing a committee. You can, however, lay the groundwork by becoming a member of the committee. As for personality characteristics, if someone is too rigid or carries a ‘my way or the highway’ attitude, then that person won’t be an effective chair. If you have a tendency to procrastinate, this could also be a problem. Someone in the role of chair should respond promptly to emails and phone calls and work steadily on issues between meetings.”

If you are the right person for the job, but there is someone on your committee who is not a good fit, what should you do? Dr. Kelly: “Sometimes there is someone who does not contribute much, either during the meetings or afterwards. Maybe they don’t have the necessary knowledge base or perhaps they just aren’t sufficiently motivated. You can say to them in private, ‘I appreciate your service, but going forward we are facing a lot of work. I’m not sure if this is the right committee for you.’ In my experience the majority of people I say this to are actually appreciative and/or relieved.”

Dr. Cooney is also an advocate of discretion. “A poor committee member should be addressed individually and not brought to task at the meeting. A quiet conversation is best, and may result in that person finding their way to a committee that better fits their interests and talents.”

So remember to be passionate, organized and diplomatic, and if you want to be chair, be sure you take that step for the right reasons.


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