Should the CEO Lead the Meeting?

More and more leaders have to turn to their staff to make recommendations and drive decision-making in order to leverage their ‘smarts’ and development. Moreover it’s impossible for any CEO to have the depth of expertise that each direct brings to the table, so the CEO would be doing a disservice to the organization by not seeking out their expertise. The reality is, though, some CEOs make bad meeting leaders.

Why is it the case that a CEO isn’t the best person to lead the meeting?

In general, meetings are getting more complex due to the attendance of multiple stakeholders with a variety of agendas. Meetings therefore need leaders who are disciplined in structuring the meeting while also managing how people interact, but who can leave the generation of ideas to the group. This poses difficulty for many CEOs because:

  • It’s hard to be neutral since CEOs have a vested interest in the content and outcome of most discussions; they tend to get involved swaying the group’s ideas by verbally stating their bias or communicating bias through their ‘body language and tone’ (the most significant clues when identifying the leader’s attitude.)
  • To avoid a CLM (“career limiting move”), participants may limit their ideas to those they perceive the CEO wants to hear, or they just might shut down if a CEO’s bias is clear.
  • CEOs typically are drivers and will want to get to solutions quickly. This may limit a qualitative discussion around what the actual problem really is, resulting in more ‘band aid’ solutions.
  • CEO’s, like many managers, lack discipline with structuring agendas and managing participant relations while staying out of the ‘content’ of the discussion. In fact, quite often CEOs can provoke controversy through random questioning, injecting their content ideas and going off-topic at his/her leisure (CEOs feel they have a right – after all, he/she is the CEO!).
  • Though they may want to achieve a consensus through collaboration, CEOs may inadvertently try to manipulate the group to his/her thinking by attacking ideas that don’t fall within his or her parameters. This can cause frustration in the team to the extent that participants shut down and do anything to avoid having to attend a CEO-led meeting.

Should I or Shouldn’t I?

The CEO right off the top needs to decide if she/he should be facilitating a meeting or not. You should facilitate if you …

  • Can remain neutral by not injecting opinions verbally or non-verbally
  • Know how to create and focus on a step-by-step meeting process or ‘structure’ (i.e. from problem identification to problem resolution)
  • Are capable of managing members’ participation levels such that they’re interacting respectfully and actively listening to one another.

You should not facilitate if you …

  1. Have a strong vested interest in the outcome and need to share ideas
  2. Have access to an internal or external facilitator.

Overcoming the Barriers

If the CEO is going to facilitate the meeting she/he needs to touch on the following points up front with the meeting participants.

Opening the Meeting

  1. Overview the purpose for the meeting – ensure clarity on why you’ve convened. Test participants’ understanding by asking them to paraphrase in their own words the purpose for the meeting. It’s amazing how frequently participants have different takes on the meeting’s purpose. Consider alleviating this by ensuring that the agenda sent beforehand specifically indicates each agenda topic’s purpose (i.e. stating ‘to review our actions’ vs. ‘to decide on which actions still hold moving forward in to our next quarter’). Having clarity on purpose helps the meeting leader determine how to structure the conversation. ‘Reviewing’ a plan versus making ‘decisions’ implies different steps and different timing.
  2. State your expectations on participation clearly. Make sure the group knows that you expect ‘everyone to participate and to state your opinions.’ Invoke the rule that ‘during brainstorming and debates, all sacred cows are open to scrutiny, etc.’. See if the group has any additional rules that are targeted to ensuring ‘safety’ during the session. Make sure you referee these operating rules or ‘norms’ throughout the session.
  3. Let the group know how much decision-making authority you are giving them and stick to it. If you give the group full authority to make a decision then take it away, noting that the group is not coming to a consensus quickly enough, then you run the risk of shutting down the group and, in the future, the group’s desire to participate. It’s therefore better to let the group know upfront that if consensus can’t be achieved within a given time, the fall back decision-making strategy could be delegating the decision to you or a subgroup.
  4. Review your role as facilitator. Overview what ‘neutrality’ means to you (i.e. managing the agenda and group relations but not getting in to content). Let them know that you won’t be throwing out ideas – that this will be solely the responsibility of the group. However, you will be asking questions to stimulate ideas but that in no way should these questions be used as a gauge by the group for trying to understand your bias.
  5. Challenge members to call you on breaking neutrality to enhance your commitment to ‘running’ the meeting – not swaying the group’s ideas.
  6. If you have a clear bias, state it upfront. Use the session to facilitate feedback on your bias or use the session to challenge participants to come up with other ideas besides yours. If prioritizing is involved, ensure the group has concrete criteria (i.e. will decrease at least 10% in operating costs) for ranking your idea against the ones they generated.
  7. Appoint a timekeeper to keep you faithful to the time committed per agenda item. If more time is needed negotiate with the group to either defer the current discussion to the next meeting, or deferring another agenda item in order to complete the discussion.

During the Meeting

The two most important aspects for meeting management include:

  1. Ensuring the discussion flows in a logical order that builds and moves the discussion towards its ultimate purpose;
  2. Managing how people interact with each other
    • Intervene when people break the norms established at the beginning of the meeting. For example, if the group norm includes focusing on issues instead of personalities, yet personal attacks and asides persist, state: ‘I’m noting that some people are beginning to focus on personalities and not the issues. Please focus on what it is that you want to see changed rather than who is to blame.’ This clearly names the inappropriate behavior without finger pointing. It sends home the message of what you want the focus to be – idea generation, etc.
    • Challenge sacred cows as they arise (i.e. ‘this has never worked before!’) by first asking the group if the last comment is a sacred cow, then by exploring its validity given the current reality.
    • If participants call you on ‘breaking neutrality,’ then humbly accept this feedback and consciously monitor your input – don’t rationalize why you said what you said!
    • Keep the group on topic and ‘park’ those items that come up which aren’t on topic. However, if the entire group wants to deal with a non-agenda item, negotiate with them. Help them determine which current agenda item(s) will need to be deferred. Make sure the purpose for discussing the new item is clear and be sure to set a timeline for the discussion.
    • Instead of ‘telling’ people what you think, ask them what they think should happen. To do this you really need to be adept at BTL (bite the lip!). If you absolutely must share some critical information with the group, then let them know you’re changing hats (i.e. I’m taking off my facilitator hat and putting on my Subject Matter Expert hat as there is some critical information you need to know at this point’). After you’ve finished, let the participants know you’re changing hats again.

      Caution: changing hats too many times is confusing to participants and perceived as breaking neutrality!

Closing the Meeting

In closing the meeting make sure people do not leave without:

  1. Creating a rough agenda for the next meeting
  2. Determining what will be done with the ideas that were parked
  3. Reviewing and testing for agreement on actions and/or decisions made
  4. Getting some feedback as to how the meeting went (i.e. Did we accomplish our objectives? How was the pace?)

Setting the Standard

For purposes of improvement, every four to five meetings conduct an anonymous, written survey as to your effectiveness as a facilitator. Then report the findings back to the group and the actions that you will be taking to improve. This proactive move signals your desire both to listen to the group’s input and to become better at helping them have more effective meetings. Doing this sets the standard for meeting facilitation throughout the whole organization!

© 2006 – 2015, Michael Goldman. All rights reserved.

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