Every good chair, needs four legs, a base and some polish

What makes a good chair? OK, this blog is going to be as multifunctional as an IKEA chair and multifunctional is also a good description of the skills required to effectively chair a Trustee Board.

I read an article recently from Sarah Smart (Pensions Trust) on effective chairing, and was asked to describe what I considered the most important chairing skills in a recent tender document. Chairs are now firmly seated at the forefront of my mind (this may also be related to my recent move and trips round Manchester IKEA, but that’s for a different blog).

I am going to look at how to build the skills required to be an effective chair, I say build loosely. Some chairing skills are difficult to teach.  Some people are practically gifted; some are technically gifted so abilities and strengths come naturally to some, chairing potentially being one of them. I would hate to lose the chair references, so let’s build these skills using your normal IKEA instruction methodology.

The base

A good meeting is unlikely to come from a bad agenda. No matter how good the chair, if they don’t have the items to cover, they are not going to achieve results.  They need to engage with, and ensure that the agenda suits the needs of, the key stakeholders (Trustees, Employer, Members), not the advisers or third parties.  They should input to the agenda, not drive it.

Leg 1 –Know your audience

The chair should have a sound knowledge of the group that they are working with, understand the level they operate at, understand their drivers (for example an MNT will be focused on good member outcomes, a Finance Director on the bottom line for the company and cashflow) and not be afraid to remind them of their fiduciary duties.  If advisers are not coming at the right level, the chair should manage this.  The meeting times, length and comfort breaks should be set to best suit all attendees where possible.

Leg 2 – Keep the conversation flowing (in the right direction)

It can be easy to allow debate to head off at tangents, or become circular.  A good chair knows when a point is made, and directs the flow of debate forward.  Where conversations veer off at tangents, the chair should try and pull things back.  However, where the tangent throws up interesting and relevant points, the chair should note these and ensure they are debated when appropriate.  AOB is a useful place for these.

Leg 3 – Timing

The chair must ensure each item receives fair and appropriate coverage.  Meetings should never be rushed, if items cannot be debated properly, they should be parked until an appropriate time.  The chair should be mindful of individual tolerances for debate, and know when discussion may be losing impetus as it is very easy to allow a meeting to drag on, with the majority of attendees no longer engaged.

Leg 4 – Participation

The chair should work to involve all attendees in the meeting. He must ensure that questions are in the open, not in the head.  The more unanswered questions that leave the room, the more follow up is required.  The fuller the debate, the more likely settlement is reached.  This requires the engagement and participation of all stakeholders and the skill of the chair to draw all this out.

The polish

When your meeting is done, the chair’s work is not done.  The chair needs to ensure the Secretary has an appropriate minute, that is approved by all and that all actions are clearly assigned to move forward and deadlines met.

Whilst some chairs come with fewer legs this does tend to cause some lack of confidence in its stability.  Without enough polish the chair can seem a bit rough around the edges and an unfinished article.  Bring all the elements together however and you have a sturdy base from which the trustees, the sponsoring employer and the third party advisers can derive confidence and comfort.  Maybe just avoid too much padding!

Chris Roberts
Chris Roberts

Chris' experience includes complex investment strategy reviews, scheme wind ups, PPF transitions, defined contribution trusteeship, working with overseas parents and negotiating complex recovery plans.