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Career Strategies for Librarians
TO:  The Chair  
RE:  Committee Meeting Mechanics
by Laura A. Sill

It’s official.  You’ve been named the chair of the new library committee.  It’s also your first appointment as
chair of anything.  You’re confident in your preparation (and if not, see “Preparing to Chair a Committee
Meeting”), and now it’s only minutes before the meeting is set to begin.  Before your committee
members arrive, you make a quick run-through of everything.  You have decided to start with
housekeeping issues, followed by a 15 minute brainstorming session, closing the meeting with a
review of actions to be taken by the next meeting.  You know that one member of the committee will not
be able to make this first meeting, but you have already discussed the agenda and solicited ideas from
him in advance.  You are excited about the work that lies ahead and the chance to work with this group.   

That’s a good start.  In general, what should you be concerned about during the meeting?  Plenty, to be
sure, but here is a list to get you started thinking about committee meeting mechanics.

1.  Know Your Intended Meeting Outcomes.  In other words, when your committee disbands, what do you
as chair want to ensure has happened in the meeting?  Examples of intended outcomes might be:
make a decision on a particular issue, complete the review of a committee document, finalize the
schedule for a project, etc.  The details will be fleshed out during the meeting, but knowing the desired
outcomes in advance is your responsibility as chair.  If you choose, your agenda can articulate the
intended outcomes along with the items to be covered in the meeting.

2.  Extend Common Courtesy to Committee Members.  As committee members arrive for your meeting,
greet them.  This seems like such obvious advice, but you’d be surprised how often it doesn’t happen.  
Why take the time to do this?  Acknowledgement with a simple hello or introduction can go a long way
towards setting a professional and collegial meeting tone.  It also sends a message that every member
of the group is on equal footing with you.  And in the end, it is just good manners.  Especially during the
first meeting of the group, don’t assume that everyone present knows one another.  In cases of cross-
departmental or cross-unit committees, it is important to introduce everyone, perhaps taking time to
allow each person to talk a bit about his work or relationship to the committee.  Such courtesy puts
members at ease, warms everyone up for the meeting, and may simply answer questions members
may have about who someone is or why a particular area of the organization is represented on the
committee.

3.  Review the Meeting Agenda with Committee Members.  Making sure that everyone has a copy, take a
few minutes at the beginning of the meeting to review the agenda with the committee.  This is also a
good time to lay out your expectations – your intended outcomes – for the meeting.  Ask for any changes
in the order of preset agenda items, or for any new additions.  Guard against removing things from the
agenda.  Since you have spent time in advance thinking about your goals for the meeting, and the
agenda items reflect those goals, remove items very cautiously.  Don’t fall prey to committee politics that
might compel a member to request that an item be postponed.  Add new agenda items as you see fit.  
Remember that the agenda is a tool to help your meeting run efficiently.   

4.  Control the (Politics of the) Meeting.  One very important, and sometimes challenging, role of the chair
is to manage the flow of the meeting.  A less diplomatic way to put it is that chair must control the politics
of the meeting.  Politics in both the positive sense (i.e., collegiality) and in the negative sense (i.e., power
plays) will arise whenever two or more colleagues get together to accomplish something for the
organization.  Even though you’ve given thought to the makeup of personalities on your committee before
the first meeting, the chair should keep close watch on group dynamics during each committee
gathering.  Without strictly labeling members, be aware of the roles that each person will play.   These
roles may change depending on the topic at hand.  For example, you may find that some members are
more energetic, assertive, vocal, or disruptive to the meeting process.  Others may be the opposite:
passive and quiet.  Some may serve as general peacekeepers, no matter what topic is discussed.  
Some members may use their position, knowledge or skills to bully others on the committee or to
obstruct a meeting.  This all sounds very negative, but it is a fact of committee work that the committee
itself takes on a personality.  It is your job to foster a collegial, positive and effective meeting
environment.  In practical terms, you may need to politely cut off certain members, encourage comment
from others, insist on discussion of difficult issues, or set certain ground rules for committee interaction.  
The earlier you take care of negative interactions and encourage positive ones, the more smoothly the
committee will work together and the more stable the committee process will be.

5.  Stick to the Meeting Agenda.  Take each item on the agenda in order.  Be aware of how much time
each will take to cover.  Timeframes are best decided before the meeting starts and watched closely
during the meeting.  If necessary, communicate time limits to committee members and cut off
discussion when the allotted time has ended.  If further discussion is needed, the topic may be added to
a future meeting.  At times, however, it may not be possible to delay discussion.  If this is the case, do a
quick review of the agenda, shift any items, and decide exactly how much more time will be devoted to
the topic under discussion.  Being strict with time forces you and your members to stay on track and,
hopefully, be succinct and to the point on any final points to be made.  Be reasonable and don’t become
a slave to your agenda or the clock.  Understand, however, that a committee chair will soon be known by
its members as either one who respects the time and energies taken by members to prepare for a
meeting (i.e., by following an agenda), or one who doesn’t show such respect (i.e., by allowing
discussions or meetings to run overtime).  Playing fast and loose with meeting time will soon have a
trickle-down effect from chair to members.  If the chair doesn’t seem to care about time and effort spent
on a committee’s work, members will also soon care less too.

6.  Start and End the Meeting on Time.  This bit of advice speaks for itself, given our discussion about the
meeting agenda.  Related is the fact that you as chair should expect your committee members to arrive
on time and stay until the end of the meeting.  Members who display a pattern of arriving late or leaving
early may be trying their hand at a bit of politics.  If you determine that this is the case, discuss the
situation in private with the offender.  A word of caution though – tread lightly with those holding higher
administrative positions.  It is not uncommon for organizational administrators to arrive late or leave early
from meetings; there may be valid reasons for this practice.  Use your judgment in addressing problems
in this area.  The bottom line is for you as chair to show respect by sticking to the scheduled time and
encouraging your members to do the same.

7.  Know Your Place.  You’re the chair, right?  So, can you also be secretary, researcher and committee
worker?   Maybe you think so, but in reality, probably not.  You are not a group of one.   Don’t feel
compelled to take notes on behalf of the group.  Find out if someone can be assigned to the group to
take and distribute notes.  If this is not possible, delegate note-taking within the group.  Rotate this job if
necessary.  You also shouldn’t feel that you need to do all the work of the committee.  Delegate the
research and work to be carried out to your members.  Remember each person is present for a reason;
this most likely includes his/her knowledge base, experience or skills, but it also includes his/her
willingness to participate.  Consider your committee management responsibilities on par with other
tasks of the group.  Being chair takes time, and careful work on the part of the chair pays off for everyone.  
Delegate, delegate, delegate!

8.  Take Time to Wrap It Up.  A smart way to end any committee meeting is to sweep through the agenda
again, summarizing the actions that have taken place.  It provides a chance for everyone to hear your
take on the discussion and allows for any inaccuracies to be clarified.  Highlight any action items,
including, for example, who will be carrying out which tasks by what deadlines.  Discuss when and
where the group will meet next, etc.  Thank committee members for their time and reassure them that
minutes of the meeting will be distributed in a timely fashion.   

***

Most of these suggestions entail using common sense, but don’t assume they therefore don’t require
your forethought and action as chair.  The consequences of an ill-prepared or loosely-managed meeting
are costly to the morale of the group and to the overall goals of the committee.  So take your
responsibility seriously and strive to make the committee experience an effective one.  

About the Author:

Laura A. Sill received a BA in French in 1987 and a MA in Library and Information Studies in 1989 from
the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  For more than a decade, she worked as systems, serials, and
acquisitions librarian in an academic library (i.e., lots of committee meetings!).  Today, she devotes her
time to her family and keeping up with her two young children.  She continues to work as a ‘virtual’
member of the ALA ALCTS Planning Committee, write book reviews for Library Collections and
Technical Services, and volunteer in local library-related projects.  

Article published November 2004

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