Who is Running Your Meetings?

John Cleese said it best: “Meetings, bloody meetings.” They’re both the bane of our organizational existence and vital for getting work done in a group—whether as a team of students or colleagues, a board of directors, or the organizing committee of an event or conference. So who should be running yours?

In a recent post, we talked about having the right conversation and shared some pointers on how to give that conversation shape, including tips on the right design, the right people and the right context. A meeting is, of course, just an extended conversation among a group of people. Depending on the size of the meeting, one or more of four distinct roles and skill sets may be needed.

The Chair: Leading Effectively

Imperative for every meeting, the chair has ultimate accountability for the meeting’s outcomes and therefore should be involved in all decisions about process to ensure the meeting delivers on its purpose. They must be decisive throughout organizing and the meeting itself, ensuring it stays on track and that colleagues’ efforts and participants’ experiences are positive and productive.

In a smaller meeting, the chair typically takes a number of other roles, but as the meeting gets bigger—think a symposium or even a conference—they’ll specialize in this one role, bringing in other team members to help ensure the meeting runs well. It’s the chair who must POP the meeting (see that previous post) and lead the production team of a larger event.

The Master of Ceremonies: Hosting Generously

We’ve each witnessed good MCs—folks who seem like a maestro of dialogue; we’ve likely also seen MCs that simply shouldn’t be in the role. While a strong MC’s contribution can be priceless, many event producers will engage a celebrity as MC, counting on the audience’s recognition of and engagement with the personality as sufficient to carry the day. However, they’re rarely equipped with the singular combination of skills that make the difference between a mere host and a true MC.

Don’t let charisma be the sole criterion when choosing your MC.

The best MCs are engaging, to be sure, but what differentiates the professional MC is a combination of three essential factors. First, they know their role is subservient to the meeting’s purpose. It’s not about them. (Egos, step aside.) Second, they’re able to take the input of the event, reflect upon it quickly, in real time, and synthesize it for the group. Think of them more like a guide accompanying the audience through the event, rather than just wayfinding signage that marks the way. And finally, they know how to be productively evocative. A great MC gives attendees a deeper insight to contemplate during and after the meeting. Used well, this capacity to evoke deeper insight inspires further, deeper dialogue, rather than merely turning people inward, alone with their thoughts.

Moderator: Conversing Incisively

This is one role that’s nearly always given short shrift. The moderator role is more ‘in the weeds’ than that of the MC, in that the moderator is responsible for deepening conversations. Typically, the moderator is engaged to ensure a panel discussion runs smoothly, but there’s more to the effective moderator than just introducing panelists and keeping time.

A great moderator works ahead of the event (and of course during the event) to ensure the panel discussion aligns to and supports achievement of the meeting’s (or conference’s) purpose. This isn’t quick work and it takes a good deal of focus. It also relies on effective leadership: The successful moderator must ensure panelists are aware and supportive of that same over-arching purpose.

A great moderator will provoke the conversation that wants to happen.

While some portion of a well-run panel or breakout is planned in advance, the moderator must also be good on their feet, helping weave together threads of the conversation—whether those threads come from individual panelists’ comments and / or from audience interaction. They must have the wherewithal to notice the conversation that wants to happen—i.e. they must listen between the lines and surface what’s being left unsaid. Often this takes an incisive, courageous, even provocative question—so building trust with panelists ahead of time is essential.

The Facilitator: Serving Effectively

Most larger group meetings (say 12 or more) require some degree of ‘breakout’ or small group interactions and engagement. The facilitator brings a skill set and personality that enables groups to be open, connective, and truly generative in their thinking. Done well, this can feel like seamless alchemy. This is a skill both of temperament and training. While countless tools and techniques are easily found with a quick Google search, so much of what makes an effective facilitator strong is about their attitude.

Like the MC, the facilitator must enter the room with an objective commitment to service—service to the group, service to the purpose of the meeting, and service to the process that will ensure a smooth, productive and efficient meeting. Theirs is a generous tone: they give of their own skills and training, lived experience and passions, and optimism for the group.

Bringing Them All Together

When these four roles are aligned and coordinated, they can produce results that feel magical to those who participate in the meeting—whether that meeting is a small group conversation, or a many hundreds (or thousands) strong conference or convention.

One final thought…. When you’re planning your next meeting (whatever its scale), don’t make the mistake of assuming these roles can be combined in a single person. Exceedingly rare is the individual who can occupy more than one of these at a time. For a great event, you’ll need a great production team. In this, as in so many things, camaraderie of purpose, clear and open communication, and a trusting, results-driven ethos are essential.


Mike Rowlands is Junxion’s President & CEO. He’s passionate about ‘hosting juicy, generative conversations,’ whether one-on-one, in group meetings, or in service of bigger conferences or conventions. Reach him via [email protected].


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