Most organizations use one of two options for determining who will lead a meeting. It’s either the manager/supervisor of the group, or it’s an outside person hired to facilitate the meeting.
But there is a more powerful option available: Decide on a topic-by-topic basis.
The roles people play in a meeting can change from one agenda item to the next. The meeting roles outlined below show a significant distinction in the parts people play, whether they’re the owner of a topic, the leader, or a participant. The entire meeting doesn’t need to have a single leader; this role can shift depending on who needs to be free to participate more fully in the conversation.
The Owner of a conversation topic is the person who requested time for it on the agenda. This person will both set the stage for discussing the topic and wrap up the discussion at the end. It is preferable for the owner of the conversation to be free to listen to each contribution, add clarity when needed, and consider the most powerful way to close the topic.
The Leader directs the discussion, with a focus on both keeping the conversation on track and ensuring broad participation.
The Provost Council at a Land Grant University I’ve worked with developed a definition of meeting roles that breaks down something like this:
Typically, this is the person who asked to put a topic on the agenda. The Owner sets up this conversation for the group, which might include:
- Framing the topic in a longer time frame or providing the context
- Setting outcomes for the conversation in this meeting
- Explaining is wanted and needed from meeting participants
- Establishing time and process, if the discussion process is complex
With straightforward and short-duration discussions, the Owner can also be the person who manages/leads the group conversation.
Whether leading or not, the Owner is also responsible for looking for the value that occurs during the conversation and providing closure at the end of it.
On complex or longer conversations, it’s useful to have someone who can manage the group conversation without adding content. Responsibilities include working with the Owner to design the best way to introduce and conduct the conversation.
This person is also responsible for making sure that the process for working through the conversation is clear and then keeping the conversation on track. The Leader manages the levels of conversation so everyone feels heard and included.
The Leader either provides a charting of the conversation or asks someone else to do so and asks someone to keep track of the conversation so pertinent points can be captured in the meeting notes to be sent out to participants within twenty-four hours.
In addition to participating in the conversation, Participants look for ways to help the Owner and the Leader to both accomplish the work on each topic and ensure that everyone has a good experience of being in the meeting.
Participants with less content to provide on a topic have an obligation to pay more attention to process and provide guidance on where the conversation is and where it might go next.
At times, you should lead your own meetings. No problem—I’m just arguing hard for not making it an automatic decision. Varying these roles is a wonderful way to build the organization’s capacity for effective meetings by giving lots of people a chance to lead—one conversation at a time rather than handle an entire meeting.