Four Roles to Keep Your Meeting on Track

By Kurt Birkenhagen · August 17, 2018

Whether you’re facilitating a meeting or participating in one, you have an important role to play and duties to fulfill. Collectively, these roles and obligations work together to produce meetings where things get done. When they’re omitted or ignored, your meetings become unending complaint fests or time-sucks everyone tries to avoid.

Assign These Roles Before Your Next Meeting

Here are four meeting roles to transform your next board meeting, brainstorm, kickoff, or online meeting into a dynamic and rewarding encounter.

The Leader

If you don’t want a meeting to devolve into a chit-chat session, someone needs to be in charge.

Think of a Meeting Leader’s job as similar to a film director’s. They run the show, deciding which roles are played, what parts of the script will be filmed, and how actors will deliver their lines. But leaders aren’t authoritarian figures or control freaks. Inspiring meeting leaders nudge rather than push, suggest instead of demand, and orchestrate rather than dictate. Here are some of their critical duties.

1. Decide the main meeting details

Meeting Leaders have to consider critical questions like:

  • Whose work schedule should we work around?
  • Who needs to be there and who doesn’t?
  • Are there decisions that need to be made?
  • Will there be clients attending?
  • What equipment will we need?
  • What meeting locations are available?

Aside from individual scheduling conflicts, some meeting times are better than others simply because of the time of day. For example, meetings around lunchtime can increase levels of hunger, disinterest, and entitlement of participants. Smart leaders know the best times to meet and how to schedule a meeting the right way.

2. Develop an agenda

An agenda functions as a meeting’s “script.” Effective Meeting Leaders create an agenda that’s easy to follow but covers all important points. The two most important considerations are content and process. That is, what will be discussed and in what order they will be presented. When topics fail to logically follow from one to the other, you confuse participants and waste time.

Consider both when developing your agenda. Here are some sample meeting agenda templates.

3. Maintain a positive, safe atmosphere

Everyone’s been to at least one meeting where someone hijacks the discussion, when overly-negative comments abound, or when personal attacks ensue. The Leader’s job is to nix these and other threats to the free exchange of ideas and to maintain a positive and safe atmosphere during the meeting.

Here are some common meeting hazards and how to counter them.

4. Assign other meeting roles

The Leader assigns remaining meeting roles. They’re responsible if they pick the wrong person for a job. If they make the timekeeper the person who’s always late to meetings, that’s on them.

The Leader is also in charge of deciding what participants should come to the meeting to avoid a room full of the wrong attendees. Extraneous participants waste everyone’s time and the company’s money. If the right stakeholders aren’t present, the meeting is a fruitless meet-and-greet.

5. Communicate Conclusions

One of the most important roles for a Leader is being the voice of the meeting. A Leader must accurately rephrase ideas and conclusions to the group for reflection and agreement. In interpersonal communication, this function is called reflecting and helps avoid misunderstandings. For groups, leaders perform this task by clarifying someone’s argument, voicing the concerns of a minority, or articulating the entire group’s conclusions (i.e. “So, what we’ve decided here is that changing X is a priority over Y and that’ we’re going to do it using Y”).

By keeping a minority opinion from being discounted, leaders reduce the need for backchanneling and side discussions.

6. Assign Action Items

Plans don’t mean much without actions, but meetings without actionable items happen all the time. Everyone’s experienced a meeting where buckets of solutions are poured onto the meeting floor only to have everyone walk away with little direction, few plans, and no actionable items for cleaning up.

It’s the Leader’s job to assign tasks and hold others accountable for getting them done. The Leader also needs the right management tools. Google Docs is an effective online option for recording and disseminating agendas and for assigning actions items to individual participants.

The Recorder

Far from simply being the Leader’s secretary, the Recorder makes sure decisions are documented, and ideas are cataloged. Recorders need strong attention to detail and the ability to record verbal discussion quickly and accurately.

Recorders should have a thorough understanding of any technical language used by the group, its meaning, and correct spelling. Clear writing is a plus for writing on whiteboards, as well as a clear, strong speaking voice for reading back minutes. If decisions aren’t recorded correctly, chaos and heated debate can ensue, so the leader should consider carefully who they want for the recorder role. Here are their major duties.

1. Help develop and distribute the agenda

Creating an effective agenda is primarily the leader’s responsibility, but he or she should consult someone who is familiar with the last meeting’s minutes and previous formats used. (Usually, whoever served as Recorder at the last meeting).

The Recorder’s familiarity with the agenda will help them take notes and keep things on track. More importantly, recorders need to know the agenda so they can distribute it before the meeting — a prerequisite for proper planning by participants and running a smooth meeting.

2. Take Accurate Meeting Notes

Meeting notes aren’t the same thing as minutes. Notes are the Recorder’s shorthand for what key decisions or actions were decided upon in the meeting. Minutes are the formalized outcome of those notes, documented, and distributed to the group. Note taking is an indispensable skill for Recorders. Meeting agendas slow to a snail’s pace at some moments and at others take off like at a rocket.

Recorders need to stay focused during such lulls and to quickly jump to action when things rev up. Here are some tips for taking notes during a meeting.

3. Record Meeting Minutes

Accurately documenting a group’s key decisions, conclusions, and action items are how Recorders contribute to a meeting’s success the most. Not only do accurate meeting minutes inform those who attended the meeting they also serve the needs of absent participants who need to know what happened, or who plan to participate the next time the group convenes.

Successfully recording minutes requires transforming meeting notes into the current meeting minutes format adopted by the group, and it’s a skill that requires more than plugging information into a pre-existing template. It requires writing in a neutral tone with unbiased descriptors that present the information in a fair manner.

These are just a few of the benefits of taking minutes during a meeting.

The Timekeeper

The Timekeeper helps the leader maintain the agenda’s order by tracking how much time is allotted for each section of the agenda. The leader can find it difficult to manage discussion points and watch the clock. It’s the timekeeper’s job to do this for him or her.

Therefore, like the Recorder, the Timekeeper needs to maintain a neutral stance from the discussions so as not to get sucked into lengthy deliberation and forget to note the time.

1. Manage Time Limits for Each Agenda Item

The meeting agenda should indicate the estimated time allotments for each subject, discussions, etc. Therefore, the timekeeper should also have a good understanding of each meeting’s agenda. Punctuality, obviously, is a key characteristic of a timekeeper. The timekeeper, the leader, and the recorder should all arrive at least ten minutes early to the meeting so there’s enough time to make adjustments, ask questions, and test equipment.

The leader and timekeeper will want to anticipate any parts of the agenda that are likely to run long to ensure things run smoothly. Timekeepers should have reliable timekeeping devices like a physical or online stopwatch, a phone app, or time record sheet.

2. Manage Visual Aids

The Timekeeper also manages the setup and operation of all A/V equipment, whiteboards, flip charts, PowerPoint presentations, projectors, and the like. This takes the burden off the Leader and Recorder, who may not be able to leave the meeting room or pause discussion to find an A/V tech, remote control, or replacement batteries.

The Participant

The Participant works to support every other meeting role and is an indispensable component for creating the content of a meeting.

Without the input and insights into the organization’s problems and solutions delivered by those attending members, meetings are just ineffectual get-togethers — even when the agenda is followed to the letter in a consistent and timely manner. Without active participants, there’s nothing to record: no problems identified, no solutions offered, and no actions are taken.

1. Understand the Agenda and Purpose of the Meeting

Before they can contribute to discussions or brainstorming sessions, Participants need to know what’s going to be discussed and what the purpose of the meeting is. That’s why sending out the agenda beforehand is so important. But it will lose its effectiveness unless participants take a serious look and think about what they want to say ahead of the meeting. Prior preparation is especially important for quieter people who wish to contribute more at meetings.

2. Contribute to the Discussion

During the meeting, it’s the Participant’s job not only to come prepared but to work with others to brainstorm ideas during each discussion session. Effective discussions aren’t a time for delivering individual monologues or personal soliloquies on company problems. They’re for establishing a clear understanding of a problem and synthesizing possible solutions from a variety of perspectives.

Because everyone participates in the building of ideas, everyone has buy-in and a strong commitment to outcomes. During a discussion, take plenty of notes, speak your ideas quickly and clearly, and know how to respond when interrupted.

3. Contribute to a positive, safe atmosphere

Although it’s the Leader’s job to maintain a positive, safe atmosphere for discussion, it’s the Participant’s job to actually make that happen. Be respectful of who is speaking and the overall allotted time.

Avoid interrupting speakers, and rely on the leader to manage those individuals who drone on too long. Most importantly, be aware of your own bad habits and correct them, especially if you fall into one or more of the following “bad” participant roles:

  • “Talks-a-lot-Ted” – Ted monopolizes discussion time and kills other ideas because there isn’t enough time to hear them all.
  • “Neil-Knows-It-All” – Neil is the subject matter expert who the group often defers to for advice. But that doesn’t mean his personal agendas or biases aren’t clouding his judgment.
  • “Silent-Sheila” – Never contributes to discussions or action items. She sits silently, letting everyone else do the work.
  • “On-the-phone-Phil” – Phil’s always checking emails, texts, or other things on his phone or laptop, never paying attention to the meeting.
  • “Will-Never-Work-Wes” – No matter what idea is put forth, Wes always responds with “That’ll never work.” Wes thinks constantly playing “Devil’s Advocate” shows he’s on top of the discussion. Turns out Wes is just annoying.
  • “Runs-Over-Rebecca” – Doesn’t respect the agenda or timekeeper. Consistently runs the meeting over by asking questions and clearing up “one last thing.”

If you think you’re one of these counterproductive meeting roles, you probably are. Make an effort to change your bad habits. You’ll contribute more to meetings. The leader, reporter, timekeeper, and participant are four basic roles any effective meeting should have.

You can assign each to separate participants, or combine two or more roles into one. Regardless, make sure each person performing their duties has adequate resources, training and time to do an effective job. Together, these roles form a powerful organizing force that’ll save you time and money and turn your team members into meeting pros.


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