Understanding the role of a Meeting Leader
Meetings have great potential, but also can lead to huge sunk costs. This article explores the role of the Meeting Leader, giving insights into who they are, what they are responsible for, and how they can shape the success of meetings overall.
Meetings are the most used leadership instrument. However, instead of treating them as a source of significant value, many organisations accept meetings as a necessary evil. It is rare that many leaders even consider their approach to meetings deliberately, let alone seek to optimise it.
Recent research published by Dr. Steven Rogelberg at the University of North Carolina found that organisations with more than 5,000 employees are wasting as much as $101 million per year on unnecessary meetings.1
So how do leaders stop wasting these resources, and instead optimise meetings, and unlock their true potential? One of the first steps is to learn how to effectively lead meetings.
As the captain of the ship, the Meeting Leader has significant agency in shaping the outcomes of formal meetings, and therefore it makes sense to consider this role early in the journey of optimising the entire meeting process.
This article explores the role of the Meeting Leader in the context of formal meetings, giving insights into who they are, what they are responsible for, and how leaders can learn to fulfil this role effectively.
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What is a Meeting Leader?
Simply put, a Meeting Leader is the individual who takes overall responsibility for a meeting's success. They are tasked with facilitating, keeping discussions course, and ensuring that meetings achieve the desired outcomes.
Meeting Leaders are the primary custodians of the 'in-meeting' phase of the formal meeting process, as they have significant control over the course of the meeting itself and what it achieves. While they also contribute heavily to the pre- and post-meeting phases, in the relay race of meetings, they accept the baton from the meeting organiser, to whom they pass it back to once the meeting is concluded to distribute the meeting minutes.
It is worth noting that a Meeting Leader might not necessarily be a leader within the organisation, but instead is responsible for guiding the participants of a formal meeting through the subject matter. Therefore, a Meeting Leader is a form of leader in the context of meetings, even if not in the wider organisational context.
A Meeting Leader is the individual who takes overall responsibility for a meeting's success
What's more, it is important to recognise that — just because an individual is a Meeting Leader — it does not mean that they are responsible for leading each individual meeting agenda item.
For example, in an executive meeting, it is likely often the case that the CEO will be the overall Meeting Leader, however it would be more sensible that the CFO leads the agenda items related to their area of expertise, and the same for marketing, HR, and product, which would likely be led by the CMO, CHRO, and CPO respectively.
The Meeting Leader charts the course of the meeting overall, and ensures that they hand off to the relevant leaders of each agenda item, and that the meeting in aggregate stays on track.
Who should lead a meeting?
When it comes to who should lead a meeting, there is no hard-and-fast rule. It could be that the Meeting Leader is in fact a leader from within an organisation or a business unit, or it could be that they are a subject matter expert in the area of discussion.
The decision on who should lead a meeting might be obvious or pre-defined by the nature of the meeting. For example, it is highly likely that the chairperson of the board will be the Meeting Leader for a board of directors’ meeting.
However, in cases where it is less pronounced, the decision of who should lead a formal meeting should be a two-way dialogue between the Meeting Organiser and the individual who proposed the meeting in the first place. It is likely that whoever perceived the need for the meeting is indeed the person who should be facilitating it. However, it could be that the topic extends beyond their remit or sphere of influence, in which case the responsibility might be passed up the chain of command and rest with an individual who has greater authority.
What are the roles and responsibilities of a Meeting Leader?
Now that we are clear on who a Meeting Leader is and what their broad remit encompasses, it is important to understand their key responsibilities within the context of formal meetings. These include:
1. Establishing and communicating the purpose
The first responsibility that a Meeting Leader will accept is determining the overall purpose of the meeting — and making sure that every meeting they lead has one. After all, meetings should only exist when necessary, and it is the responsibility of the Meeting Leader to have a go, no-go checkpoint for every meeting to ensure that a) the purpose is clear, and b) that a meeting is the best means of achieving this purpose.
Once this purpose is clear, it is the Meeting Leader's responsibility to communicate this to all participants, to ensure alignment and clarity among those whose time is being spent in the name of the meeting.
2. Considering each participant
A key responsibility of a Meeting Leader is to effectively facilitate the meeting. A first step on this journey is to consider each participant individually, and to have a plan for how to get the best out of each of them. For example, making a mental note of who can best contribute to each agenda item is vital in ensuring each individual has the space to share their expertise and shape discussions.
3. Fostering inclusion
A related, but discrete responsibility of a Meeting Leader is to foster an environment of inclusion. This not only means making space for each individual to contribute equally, but it also relates to psychological safety — ensuring that everyone feels able to speak up, share ideas, and brainstorm actively without fear of opprobrium or censure.
Making meetings inclusive is not only ethical, but it also leads to more fully-formed discussions and better-informed decisions.
4. Achieving outcomes
As a Meeting Leader, a large portion of the responsibility for the success of the meeting rests in your hands. It is vital that you keep discussions focussed, and that the meeting itself remains outcome-oriented throughout. At the outset you have confirmed the purpose of the meeting, and now it is your task to ensure the meeting is the vehicle that gets you to this end point.
5. Asking for feedback (and documenting it)
Another key responsibility as a Meeting Leader is to ensure that participants give feedback on every formal meeting. You also need to ensure that this feedback is documented in a way that allows experiences to be learned from, and for feedback to be aggregated.
This not only helps you to evolve as a Meeting Leader, but it also helps to iterate upon your organisation's approach to formal meetings — something which your entire team will benefit from.
Standardising your meeting feedback into a simple questionnaire to be distributed at the end of each formal meeting is a great way of doing this. Some examples of questions you could include are:
- Did this meeting have a clear purpose?
- Did the Meeting Leader facilitate the meeting effectively?
- Were tasks and decisions clearly communicated and tracked during the meeting?
How to improve your skills as a Meeting Leader
The roles and responsibilities of a Meeting Leader are varied and wide-reaching. In order to develop your skills and to learn how to lead effective meetings, it is essential to begin with feedback you have received, and to seek opportunities to learn.
It is proven that the vast majority of Meeting Leaders significantly overestimate their ability to lead meetings, and it is also true that many organisations fail to even assess their meetings, which gives little incentive for change.
In order to begin the journey towards excellence as a Meeting Leader, it is vital that you first start by assessing your meetings, and then to explore resources to help you address areas of weakness in your — and your organisation’s — approach to meeting leadership.
Sherpany's Meeting Leader Certification offers a structured approach to learning all of the necessary skills to become an effective Meeting Leader. It is based on the latest research in the field of Meeting Science, along with our decade of experience in helping organisations to master meeting management.
1 “Useless Meetings Waste Time and $100 Million a Year for Big Companies”, M. Boyle, Bloomberg, 2022.