Thrown Into the Deep End: Tips for Organizing and Leading Meetings

ASCCC Past President 2016-2018
ASCCC Past President 2022-2023
ASCCC Past President 2014-2016

Meetings of various types are a common aspect of the professional experience of faculty members, and many faculty leaders have extensive experience with preparing and chairing meetings. However, far too often an individual is selected to serve as chair of a committee or other body with no real guidance or mentoring on how to manage the position. New chairs are often metaphorically thrown into the deep end of the pool and told to swim without support or preparation for the role they have assumed. Such a situation can not only lead to meetings that seem disorganized and frustrating but can also impede the work that meeting is intended to accomplish.

Pre-Meeting: The Agenda and Preparation

Most chairs are expected to develop an agenda in advance of a meeting. If the body being chaired falls under the Ralph M. Brown Open Meetings Act, an agenda, along with any supporting documents that will be presented at the meeting, must be posted in a manner accessible to the public at least seventy-two hours in advance of the meeting. Even for meetings not subject to the Brown Act, an agenda is helpful for organizing the meeting, and thus an agenda is expected in most cases. However, some agendas are more useful and productively designed than others, and a few specific strategies for agenda development can be very helpful.

Agenda items are frequently labeled as action or discussion items, with “action” indicating items for which a vote will be required. Such labeling helps the committee members to anticipate what is expected of the item. For Brown Act bodies, discussion items should never lead to a motion or vote.

One good practice is to include a set of two or three concrete meeting outcomes at the top of the meeting agenda or to indicate an expected outcome with each agenda item. Attendees will thus not only have a clearer sense of what business needs to be accomplished but, if the outcomes are fulfilled, will also leave the meeting with a sense that their time was spent productively and their participation had value. For bodies that fall under the Brown Act, these outcomes can be associated with those matters indicated as action items.

Another addition to an agenda that can have a positive impact is a time limit for each agenda item. Setting a specific timeframe for deliberation of each item can help to keep the agenda moving and avoid belaboring a point on which the body has really reached agreement. In establishing such limits, the chair must be realistic: setting a five-minute limit on an item for which real discussion will be needed will lead to frustration and possibly distrust of the process. The time limits must allow sufficient time for discussion, which requires reasonable judgement from the chair as to how much time will really be necessary. If more discussion is needed when the time limit expires, the body may have a process to extend the time, but if this happens the chair should remind the body that doing so may also extend the time of the meeting or remove time from another item. Most of all, the chair should be certain that the total of the time limits established for the agenda items do not exceed the time set for the meeting.

In order to establish reasonable time limits, the chair must realize that the body may not be able to consider all items submitted for consideration at the meeting. Many chairs feel an obligation to include every agenda item that is suggested, but the time allotted for the meeting may not allow consideration of every submission. The chair must prioritize and include only as many agenda items as the meeting time will allow. Such prioritization may require the chair to explain to some members of the body that their suggested agenda items will have to be postponed until a future meeting. Items that are not included may be listed as future agenda items so that members know items that will be forthcoming.

Another way to manage to the number of agenda items is to incorporate a consent agenda for items that are not expected to need discussion (Robert,, 2020, 41:32). Such items may include matters from previous meetings that simply need a vote but no further discussion as well as minutes or summary notes from previous meetings. Members should be given the opportunity to remove items from the consent agenda if they feel deliberation or comment is needed, but any item not removed will be considered for approval without discussion, saving time for other issues.

No matter how the agenda is organized, the chair should be familiar with the details of each item that is included. Even if the item is being presented by another member of the body or a guest, the chair should know the issue and any complications in order not to be surprised by new information during the meeting.

Finally, the chair should make certain in advance of the meeting that all materials and technology are prepared, available, and functional. Nothing makes a meeting seem disorganized or a waste of time more quickly than technology failures, missing documents, or other such delays. Even if the materials or technology are being presented by someone else, the chair should make certain that all aspects of the meeting are ready to proceed before the meeting begins.

In the Meeting: Managing Discussion

Once the meeting begins, the chair has two duties: keep the discussion focused on the issues listed on the agenda and facilitate respectful discourse. If the meeting falls under the Brown Act, keeping the discussion focused has a legal implication, as non-agenda items may not be discussed. However, the same principle should apply to any meeting in order to keep the discussion productive. Thus, if comments from a member of the body begin to drift from the agenda item, the chair must be willing to politely interrupt and bring the discussion back to the point.

The chair must also ensure that all committee members are given a chance to speak and that a small minority does not dominate the discussion. For this purpose, the chair may ask members to raise their hands if they wish to speak and wait to be recognized by the chair. If a member begins to speak without being recognized, the chair must be willing to interrupt that speaker and urge the individual to wait until called upon. In this way, the chair can maintain order and allow all members an equal opportunity to express their views. The chair may also ask members not to repeat points or comments already made by others. Finally, the chair may at times pause to look around the room briefly, giving those that have not spoken an opportunity to express their views.

To manage the order of speakers, the chair may want to keep a written speaker list, adding names to it as each member indicates a desire to speak and proceeding down the list in order.  Because tracking such a list can be difficult during a meeting, the chair may ask a vice-chair, secretary, or other member to assist with keeping the list.

Many chairs have been told that they should not engage in debate while conducting a meeting, but this statement is not necessarily true. If the chair is not a formal member of the body and is simply present to facilitate the meeting, then the chair should not speak to the issues. However, more often the situation is that the chair is elected or appointed from the membership of the body and therefore has the same rights as any other member. Indeed, if the chair has information that is important to the debate, the chair may have an obligation to speak. In meetings that strictly adhere to Robert’s Rules of Order, a chairperson who wishes to speak to an issue may temporarily need to formally relinquish the position of chair (Robert,, 2020, 43:29). In a less formal meeting, the chair may simply be able to participate along with other members. Because the voice of the chair can carry more weight, a wise chair will usually wait until after others have spoken before engaging in the discussion in order not to influence the debate too heavily. However, a chair who is a designated member of the body should never feel prohibited from speaking when the chair has legitimate information or comments to add.

For potentially contentious items, the chair may wish to establish speaking rules prior to beginning the discussion and remind members to respect all voices. Should the debate become heated, the chair may wish to pause to re-center the discussion in a more collegial manner.

At the end of each agenda item, the chair may wish to summarize the discussion, especially any decisions made or actions to be taken. This practice will ensure that all members have a clear understanding of any agreements reached and any future actions that will be pursued.

After the Meeting: Planning Ahead

Topics for future agenda items will often arise during a meeting. The chair should keep a list of potential agenda items for future meetings in order that suggested topics are not forgotten.  After the meeting ends, the chair can organize this list and decide how urgent each matter is in preparation for the next meeting.

Serving as chair of any body is an honor, but it can also be a confusing, stressful, and complicated task, especially for new chairs who have not been offered mentoring and guidance. With experience, planning, and observance of good practices, a chair can help to ensure that meetings are productive and that members of the body feel that their time is being well spent.


Robert, H.M.III, Honemann, D., Balch. T., Seabold, D., & Gerber, S. (2020). Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised.  12th Edition.  Public Affairs.