The Uncomfortable Chair

The Practice Collection

Recently our local city council had an epiphany. For readers not familiar with my city, Calgary Alberta, we have, what is considered a very thoughtful and progressive city council led by a gentleman who has been described, by vote, as the best mayor in the world in 2014 … Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

Yahoo indeed!

He is a really good guy … but it seems he is a bit on the chatty side. We all know about his New York City cab ride and his little chat with a cabbie about the good, bad and ugly of the impending Uber.

So now it appears his fellow council members have also imagined a world where his lovely digressions in council chambers might have a little more ample and a little less ramble.

As mayor, it is his job and duty to chair the proceedings…but it seems the proceedings are proceeding a little far into the night and the councilors would like to get home and the City Clerk would like a little less overtime on the monthly charges.

This is in no way a unique or uncommon situation in the public sector, the private sector or the front line sector. (Non-profit) Please tell me if you can of one situation in any sector where the top dog does not automatically get to chair the big meetings. It is an entitlement thing. The boss is the chair.

Now everyone and I mean everyone is pretty fed up with bad meetings. We all speak up bravely about bad meetings but to no one’s surprise we seem to clam up about bad chairing of those meetings, which is clearly one of the root causes of such bad meetings.

Think about it …

We are generally all familiar with the skilled facilitator who for a sweet fee will come in and run a tough meeting for you with focus, rigor clarity and speed. These people exist and frankly we like them a lot but for reasons of scarcity, cost and protocol we often only use them on special occasions.

Might be time for a re-consider…

Our council grasped for the first straw. Tradititionally political bodies have used an impartial moderator to keep the peace and the place in focus. We called this person the speaker…irony abounds, we don’t actually want a person doing a lot of talking in this job. This will work to some degree but it is a tough sled as they usually pick this person from their own jean-pool, thus putting into question two key ingredients for quality.

True impartiality is missing…the best facilitator has no skin in the game.
No assurance of any history of real training, skill and talent of the person.
So the question for our Council is simply…why not go all the way beyond a Speaker and just hire a real pro. This does not have to be an outside contractor or a business deal, in fact chances are that there is a public servant right now in your own organization with a great voluntary facilitation practice who would do a fine job and do it for no extra cost or burden to your budget.

So lets say you are now thinking this is a pretty good idea but there must be a catch…well there sure is.

Remember a few paragraphs back when we used the high octane word “entitlement?” Well there is the catch. Over many, many years chairing meetings has been seen as a privilege of power instead of a particular skill and talent that serves power.

So what would it take to move this issue a bit forward?

I have noticed with our work using different tools such the Workout, the Standup and the World Café that what emerges from the tools is the importance of two unique roles.

The Host role is generally the one who has called the session, the one who perhaps needs the session, carries responsibility for the work to be done and who may hold the particular management or leadership function for the work to be done.

The facilitator role is clearly the “hired gun” the skilled practitioner who can move the room, focus the issue and get some clear positive and productive results.

There is no need for these roles to diminish each other. The host calls the meetings, sets the agenda, posits the required outcomes and because of their own “skin in the game “rolls up their own sleeves as well and helps get the work done. They set the stage for the hand-off to the facilitator.

The facilitator just does the job and then hands it back to the host for implementation. The host accepts the results and commits top mobilizing any forward action.

Simple stuff.

The closet example I ever saw to a culture starting to play with this sort of model was the BC Forest Service in the early years of the new millennium. Doug Konkin the deputy minister at the time led and supported a culture that adopted the learning organization model of organizational development and engagement. At one point, I understand that there was a community of practice consisting of over 200 practitioners who were skilled and entreprenurial in their voluntary practice of facilitation and engagement.

I was told that in those days it felt like every meeting was designed and delivered by an experienced internal practitioner. I was never aware that any mangers ever felt threatened by having skilled leadership run their meetings instead of entitled bosses. I was also advised that “meeting satisfaction” was decidedly improved and for many a vision of how we could get rid of the “bad meeting” issue with something more real than a John Cleese video.

I did love that video though …