The effective Chair: Responsibilities

Further information

  • Preparing and running a meeting
  • Samples

The Chair's skills and commitment are critically important factors in determining whether or not a meeting serves a useful purpose.

UWA's Senate resolved in 1993 that the term "chair" be used in all official and formal communications to describe the person who is elected or appointed to chair a committee.

As the Chair of a committee, you have many responsibilities and you'll also have a number of rewards

  1. The first steps
  2. Induction
  3. Information package
  4. Recognising the importance of your role
  5. Developing an understanding of the rules of debate
  6. Deciding the right level of formality for your committee
  7. Developing a good relationship with your Executive Officer
  8. Building good relationships with members
  9. Building relationships with chairs/executive officers of other committees
  10. Ownership of the agenda
  11. Understanding the issues
  12. The agenda meeting
  13. Cancelling a meeting
  14. Preparing for the meeting
  15. Running the meeting
  16. Checking back with the Executive Officer
  17. Commenting on the draft minutes
  18. Follow-up action
  19. Training a Deputy Chair
  20. Dealing with difficult members
  21. Reviewing the work of the committee
  22. Acting on the outcomes of the Review
  23. Taking part in induction meetings for new members

The first steps

  • Familiarise yourself with the University's Principles for the Operation of Committees. Keep them in mind in all your committee work and ensure that your committee adheres to them.

  • Familiarise yourself with your committee's constitution, or terms of reference, if you are not already familiar with them.

    Check if your committee sits within the formal Senate/ Academic Board/Faculty system.

    If you are chairing a Working Party or Task Force, you will normally be involved in the formulation of the terms of reference.

  • If the committee fits within the formal Senate/Academic Board/Faculty system, familiarise yourself with where it fits into the overall structure and how it relates to other committees in the structure.

  • Refer to How to prepare an agenda and How to take and write minutes to ensure that you are informed about the key elements of good practice in relation to these activities.

  • Give yourself an incentive to be an effective chair and to make efficient use of your committee's time by doing a rough calculation of the cost of each hour of your committee's time in terms of salaries.  

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  • If you're taking over as chair of an existing committee, attend any Induction Session you are offered. If this is not offered well before your first meeting, ask the Executive Officer to arrange a formal handover session in which the outgoing Chair and the Executive Officer brief you on the work of the committee and your role as Chair.

  • If you know well enough in advance that you are to chair an existing committee, ask the outgoing Chair whether you can attend one or more meetings as an observer.

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Information package

  • Ensure that you're provided with either an Information Package on the committee (where this exists) or essential background documents (such as constitution, policies relevant to the committee's work, recent agendas/minutes, scheduled meeting dates, chart showing where committee fits in the system). Access the How to put together an Information Package to get an idea of the kinds of documents that can be included in an information package.

  • If you'll be chairing a one-off Working Party or Task Force, attend any briefing program you're offered. If a program isn't offered, ask the Executive Officer to arrange a session in which the originator of the Working Party (such as Head of School, Dean, Chair of the Academic Board, Registrar, Vice-Chancellor) briefs you about the precise task of the Working Party/Task Force, and your role as Chair.

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Recognising the importance of your role

  • Understand exactly what your role as Chair is, and recognise how critical that role is to the effective functioning of your committee. However competent the Executive Officer, however well prepared the members, no meeting can be effective without the knowledge, control and guidance of a good Chair.

  • Take every opportunity to develop and enhance your chairing skills. For example, you may find it useful to observe a meeting chaired by an individual known for his/her effectiveness in the role. If you think this would be of value, ask an appropriate staff member (such as your Head of School, your Dean, or the University Secretary) for advice on who to observe and how to arrange it.

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Developing an understanding of the rules of debate

  • Many of the University's committees operate fairly informally, using common sense rather than the formal rules of debate. In general the more senior the committee in the system, the more formal the procedures adopted.

    Chairs working with the more senior committees should familiarise themselves with the formal rules of debate through reading (and perhaps owning) a good textbook on the topic, such as:

    Horsley's Meetings Procedure, Law and Practice (1998, 4th edition, Butterworths)

    (There is a copy of this book in the Organisational and Staff Development Services Resource Library)

    For most others, familiarity with the basic rules of debate will be enough.

  • Always remember that as a chair in the University environment you're a facilitator of discussion by the members of your committee, rather than a dictator of procedure. You may therefore find it helpful in difficult situations to ask your committee to decide how it wishes to proceed (perhaps offering options) rather than to impose a particular approach. 

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Deciding the right level of formality for your committee

  • Rule 17 requires that "Chairs should conduct meetings with the degree of formality appropriate to the committee. Generally, greater formality is needed with major committees, committees with a larger membership and where it is required by constitutional and statutory provisions."

    Remember that even in the smallest, most informal and friendly meetings, some degree of control by the Chair is necessary if the group is to be effective in carrying out its tasks.

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Developing a good relationship with your Executive Officer

  • It's very important that you develop an effective working relationship with the Executive Officer of your committee. You and the Executive Officer make different but equally valuable contributions to the committee's work and each should respect the other's contribution. It's a bonus if you enjoy working together but it's entirely possible (and essential) to work professionally together even if you're not kindred spirits. You should be able to build a good working relationship by being fully committed to your role as chair, by recognising the importance of the Executive Officer's role to the success of the committee, and by always behaving professionally - that is by being accessible, communicative, courteous, direct and good-humoured.

  • Read The Effective Executive Officer to fully understand the responsibilities of the role.

  • Avoid any temptation to take over the work of the Executive Officer - be clear on the distinctions between your separate roles and stick to them. If you are new to the role of Chair and you are uncertain whether a specific task lies with you or the Executive Officer, ask.

  • Be careful to avoid inadvertently belittling the value of the Executive Officer's role - for example by referring to him/her as "our scribe" - during meetings. There is considerable misunderstanding of the difficulty and value of the role and some Executive Officers are sensitive to comments which underestimate the demands of their work and devalue their contribution to the effectiveness of committees.

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Building good relationships with members

  • It's very important for the effective functioning of a committee that the Chair develop good relationships with the members. You can do this in a variety of ways, such as through making sure that you know all members' names and brief information about them (for example, which School or section they are from, how long they have been at UWA, where they came from, other committees they have served on) and/or perhaps through having a coffee or lunch with members you don't know well.

    Members who have some knowledge of you (and of each other) are more likely to be comfortable contributing to meetings.

  • Having an Induction Session (Rule 23) for new members provides an ideal opportunity for you and the Executive Officer to make contact with them and for the new members to meet each other.

  • You may find it worthwhile to go to meetings ten minutes or so before they start as this often provides the opportunity to catch up with any members who come early.

  • It's a good idea to make clear to all members (perhaps at your first meeting and/or at the first meeting each year) that they are welcome to contact you at any time about any problems/suggestions they may have in relation to the committee's work.

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Building relationships with chairs/executive officers of other committees

  • If you're the Chair of a committee which regularly receives items from other committees, you may find it helpful to make personal contact (however briefly) early in your term of office with the chairs and executive officers of your "feeder" committees. Establishing these contacts may be useful if you later have to discuss with them any problems relating to material they have forwarded.

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Ownership of the agenda

  • The Chair of a committee "owns" the agenda, though the Executive Officer usually does most of the work of producing it. It is therefore important that you're happy with the final version of the agenda. The most effective way of ensuring this is to have a meeting between yourself and the Executive Officer to consider the draft agenda and to clarify any changes which you want made before the final version goes out.

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Understanding the issues

  • As Chair of a meeting, you must have a full understanding of all the issues on the agenda, and close familiarity with any policies (University /faculty/school/external) which impact on those issues. If you don't, you will be unable to handle discussion effectively and may lose the confidence of your members.

  • If you're new to a committee it may take you considerable time and effort to develop the necessary knowledge base, and you should be prepared for this. If you do not understand the issues fully, take the time to talk to other staff who can help to increase your understanding.

  • Utilise the knowledge and experience of your Executive Officer to help you understand complex issues. In many cases the Executive Officer will have worked with the committee over a long period and will have built up an extensive knowledge base on which you can call. The most effective committees usually have a chair and executive officer who work as a team and pool their knowledge and experience to produce the best outcomes for the committee.

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The agenda meeting

  • Take the opportunity at every agenda meeting to apply Rule 21, which requires that "Chairs and Executive Officers should meet to discuss the draft agenda so both understand the purpose and possible outcomes of the meeting."

  • Rule 10 (dot point 5) requires that "any items perceived by the Chair to be key issues are highlighted " in the agenda. The agenda meeting provides the opportunity to decide to identify any key issues and to make sure that the agenda draws attention to them.

  • Your first agenda meeting is a good time to decide, after discussion with the Executive Officer, whether you want an "Other Business" or "Questions on Notice" item on each agenda. Rule 10, which among other things, recommends that you require that you be notified in advance of "Other Business" items.

  • In asking for changes to the draft agenda, bear in mind the purpose of the agenda - i.e. to ensure not only that members know what issues will be discussed at the meeting, but also to ensure via the content and presentation of each item (and any attachments) that members understand the nature of the issue, its history and importance, in sufficient depth to facilitate informed discussion and decision-making. Changes should therefore be aimed primarily at ensuring that the agenda meets this purpose.

  • The agenda will normally be the starting point for your handling of an item at the meeting, and you may want to check that the presentation of issues in individual items is consistent with the way in which you want to approach them.

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Cancelling a meeting

  • When putting together the agenda, the Executive Officer may suggest that there is insufficient important/contentious business to justify holding a scheduled meeting. Alternatively you may decide this at the agenda meeting. It may be possible to circulate business which is urgent but appears uncontentious, with your recommendations, and a deadline for disagreement with these recommendations. (Check Principles 2 and Rule 5 for further information.)

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Preparing for the meeting

  • Be prepared to spend a fair bit of time preparing for the meeting. Make sure that you are thoroughly familiar with the documents on the agenda and that you know exactly what the meeting is being asked to do with each item.

  • Work through each item, making notes in whatever way you feel comfortable with, on how you will introduce the issues. Some chairs like to make notes on the agenda itself, while others prefer to write separate notes for reference.

  • If you're new to chairing and don't feel particularly confident, you can write yourself a script, at least for the introduction of each item. You may not need to use it in its entirety, but just having it with you can help to give you confidence (and writing it will certainly help to prepare you for the meeting)

  • Try to estimate the time that each item "justifies", so that you have a basis for moving discussion along at the meeting. You want to avoid a situation in which one relatively minor (but perhaps contentious) issue takes a disproportionate amount of time, leaving minimal time for the key issues.

  • If you're unsure how best to handle a difficult item, you may wish to discuss it with the Executive Officer and/or your Deputy Chair. ( Such opportunities for input can also be of help in building a Deputy Chair's experience and confidence.)

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Running the meeting

  • Rules 8, 16, 17 and 18 will assist.

  • Check with the Executive Officer that any quorum specified in the committee's constitution/terms of reference is present. If not, decide whether the meeting will continue or not. An inquorate meeting can discuss items and make recommendations to the full committee but cannot make any decisions for the committee. Your decision should be guided by factors such as the urgency of items. The meeting can discuss and make recommendations on urgent items for circulation to the committee with a deadline for response.

  • If the meeting is your first and you don't know all the members, or if a number of new members have joined the committee (for example, at the start of the year), consider opening the meeting with a short session in which each member briefly introduces him/herself to the group. Talk with the Executive Officer about the nature of the information you'd like each member to give, and consider putting the item on the agenda so that members have time to think about what they'll say. For some people, this kind of activity is unattractive, but it can help to make members more comfortable within the committee team.

  • At the outset of your chairship you may wish to make a statement about the way in which you intend to operate (for example, that you will adhere to the Principles for the Operation of Committees, that you will start meetings strictly on time, that you will run items according to a notional timeframe, that you will assume that members have read the agenda carefully.)

  • At the outset of a meeting with a large number of agenda items, you may wish to indicate to members how much time you have notionally allocated to each item. This can help to remind members of time pressures and the relative importance of items.

  • As stated in Rule 8 you need to be aware that at times there may be a conflict of interest on the part of individual members in relation to items of business for the committee. This is particularly so in cases where the committee is charged with making decisions in respect of individuals. A good practice is to provide an opportunity for members to declare any conflict of interest , or perceived conflict of interest, in respect of any item and where appropriate to absent themselves from discussion and/or the room while the item is being considered.

  • Bear in mind that as chair you're there to guide the committee through its business, not to dictate to it. While you're entrusted with the control of meetings, you're expected to use your authority to enable the committee as a whole to work to its maximum effectiveness.

    From the outset of your chairship, try to establish an atmosphere which is conducive to the open and productive discussion of issues. Exercise tight but good-humoured control, and never resort to any tactic which smacks of bullying or intimidation. Once you use such tactics, it is hard to restore a good working atmosphere.

  • Stick to the agenda. Keep members focused on the tasks on the agenda, and if they wander away from those tasks, guide them back.

  • Maintain impartiality as chair, remembering your responsibility for ensuring that there is full and balanced discussion of every issue on the agenda. The Chair should not normally lead the committee - rather he/she facilitates consideration of issues by the members. This may involve clarifying issues, correcting misunderstandings, and when necessary contributing points (rather than personal views) to the discussion in order to balance debate.

  • Move the committee through the business on the agenda as quickly as is compatible with thorough discussion of the issues. But don't rush members unduly - there is no glory in setting a record in terms of meeting length if members leave the meeting feeling that they've been cheated of the opportunity to canvass all the issues. On the other hand, don't let the meeting dawdle and waste time. Members need to hear the full range of opinions, but they only need to hear each opinion once. So, exercise polite control over any members who have a tendency to repeat points already made. One way of doing this, when you think no new points are being made, is to ask members to speak only if they have substantially new points to add to the debate.

  • Stick as closely as you can to your notional timetable unless it becomes clear that you genuinely underestimated the time required for full discussion of an item. Keep track of time during the meeting. Some chairs put their watches on the table in front of them, others ask the Executive Officer to remind them when they are nearing the end of the time allocation. When your notional deadline is close, try to draw the item to a close if you think that the issues have been sufficiently canvassed . You might say something like "I think we've now spent enough time on this issue and heard a wide range of views, so unless any member has anything new and significant to add at this stage, I propose to proceed to a vote."

  • Be consistently firm but fair. Keep the task in mind at all times and remember that you're responsible to all the members for ensuring that meetings progress effectively and that every member has a chance to speak. You will occasionally have to be politely firm with individual members in the interests of the group as a whole.

  • Insist from the outset that members address the meeting only through the chair. If you don't exercise this control, the meeting may descend rapidly into chaos with different members debating different points simultaneously round the table.

  • Don't allow individuals to carry on extended private conversations with the person next to them while you or another member are speaking. Apart from being discourteous, this can result in other members or the Executive Officer being unable to hear the main debate.

  • Don't play favourites in letting members speak or in cutting members short. This can happen without your really being aware of it if you know some members better than others, or if you have more sympathy with some views than others. Be careful to allow equal airtime as far as possible.

  • As chair, you may need to draw opinions out of members. For example, if the points emerging in discussion all seem to be in favour of a particular proposal, you can ask whether any member wishes to speak against it. Remember that you're trying to ensure that your committee covers all angles of an issue before arriving at a decision. You might even have to play devil's advocate yourself and throw in a few points to initiate discussion on the other side.

  • You may encounter the situation in which a small number of members are highly vocal in their opposition to a proposal, while the majority are silent, though it is fairly clear that they support the proposal. In these circumstances, intervene at an appropriate point and ask whether there are members who wish to speak for the proposal. Hopefully, this will help to balance the input to the debate.

Part of your job as Chair is to encourage all members to contribute to debate. Almost every committee has its share of those who enjoy speaking (sometimes too much) and those who would like to contribute but find it hard to do so for a range of possible reasons (personality, nervousness and the like). Take notice of any non-contributors (who may in fact have very useful points to make) and try to give them opportunities to contribute without drawing undue attention to them. (Such as "Would anybody who has not already spoken like to add anything?")

Chairing meetings - how to ensure that everyone gets a fair hearing (Rachel Green):

  • As Rachel Green points out, many female committee members have had the experience of making a point which is virtually ignored, only to hear its substance repeated later by a male member to great acclaim. As chair be aware that, for whatever reason (voice, manner?) women can find it hard to make an impact in meetings, and make a general point of acknowledging useful points made by women, if other members do not do so.

  • Don't ever be tempted to make disparaging remarks about any member's views on an issue or contribution to a debate. If a member's views are based on misinformation or misunderstanding, you can courteously correct these, but never indulge in any kind of "put-down" behaviour which might shame, embarrass or ridicule a committee member.

  • If a number of members raise their hands to speak at the same time, determine an order for their contributions for the Executive Officer to note and then stick to it. If possible give precedence to those who haven't already spoken.

  • Listen carefully to debate as it proceeds, and try to identify the key points as you go along. Make a few notes if this helps you remember key points. In a complex debate it can be very helpful to members if you can briefly summarise key points made for and against a proposal before any vote is taken.

  • Dissuade your committee from trying to make significant changes to complex proposals without reference back to the originators of the proposals. Very often proposals are an integrated whole, and changing one part significantly impacts significantly on other parts. Experience shows that drafting on the run is usually unwise.

  • Make sure that when any vote is to be taken members know exactly what they are voting on. This usually involves the Executive Officer reading out the proposed motion (or amended motion) to the meeting. You must be satisfied that members understand the motion before they vote - and it may occasionally be necessary to ask "Are you all clear about what you are voting on?"

    In some cases, the resolution may need to be tidied up (for example, in terms of its structure) by the Executive Officer and Chair after the meeting, and this is quite acceptable provided the thrust of the decision is not changed in any way. Quite often members of a committee who know and trust the Executive Officer will suggest that the final version of a resolution be left to him/her to work out. This can save time at the meeting and avoids the risks associated with drafting on the run.

  • When a formal vote is taken, decide whether it's necessary to count the votes, and if so, ask the Executive Officer to do this. It's normally only necessary to count and record voting numbers when an issue is contentious, or when a vote is likely to be close. In many instances you will know simply from the show of hands whether a vote has been carried.

  • Remember the courtesies. Introduce any invitees to meetings (and get their details right) and thank them for their attendance and contribution. Thank any members who may have undertaken tasks for the committee. Thank members for their patience if they have had to sit through long and difficult meetings.

  • If you have chosen to have an "Other Business" item on the agenda, don't allow discussion of any matter of significance under this item, on the basis that the committee must have adequate time and documentation to prepare for informed discussion. Any significant issue can be included in a future agenda if appropriate.

  • If there is no "Other Business" item and a member raises a matter not on the agenda, invite the member to discuss the matter with you after the meeting, so that if appropriate an item can be prepared for a future agenda.

  • Chairing a Meeting - Sample Meeting Procedure.

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Checking back with the Executive Officer

  • If a meeting has been complex, it can be helpful to spend a few minutes with the Executive Officer at the end. Even an experienced Executive Officer can occasionally miss or fail to understand a key point that was made and if aware that this has happened in the meeting, will normally welcome the opportunity to talk it over with you while the meeting is still fresh in your mind. A routine enquiry from you after each meeting along the lines of "Anything in all that which you'd like to discuss before writing the minutes?" can offer the opportunity for clarification of a point.

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Commenting on the draft minutes

  • While the Chair "owns" the agenda, the Executive Officer (as the person whose main task at the meeting is to record the discussion and outcomes) "owns" the minutes until such time as they are confirmed or amended by the committee at its next meeting. So, while you have the right to see the draft, to comment on it, and to suggest changes/additions, you can't insist on changes.

  • Occasionally a Chair and Executive Officer disagree over what took place at a meeting, on how a discussion should be recorded, or on what can reasonably be omitted from the record. If this happens, the best way forward is to try to reach agreement or a reasonable compromise through discussion (perhaps including the Deputy Chair). Avoid antagonism as this tends to entrench views. If you can't agree, let the next meeting decide the matter.

  • Be tactful. You should be checking the draft for accuracy of reporting (i.e. matters of substance) and adherence to relevant sections of Principles for the Operation of Committees. Avoid issues of style unless they materially affect the accuracy of the record. Remember that you are not marking a student essay, and don't use a red pen! It is likely to be more effective for you to make tentative suggestions for changes than to simply insert your preferred version in the text! 

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Follow-up action

Most of the follow-up action required after a meeting will fall to the Executive Officer, but there may be occasions on which it's more appropriate for you to take follow-up action. Make a note at the meeting of any action you've agreed to take, and follow up as soon as you can.

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Training a Deputy Chair

  • Don't be overly possessive of your role as chair. Don't change scheduled meetings simply because you won't be available (apart from anything else, this can cause a lot of unnecessary and unproductive work). Let your Deputy Chair take on the role, or have the committee appoint a deputy for any meeting you can't attend.

  • Consider giving an inexperienced Deputy Chair the opportunity to chair a meeting, or part of a meeting, to gain some experience, even if you are available to chair it. If possible, choose a meeting with a straightforward agenda for the first experience and offer help in preparing for the meeting.

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Dealing with difficult members

  • You may occasionally come across a member who habitually causes problems at meetings. It may be a member who hasn't read the agenda and wastes the time of others asking questions at the meeting; it may be someone who speaks too much and/or at too great a length; it may be a person whose approach to other members is aggressive or intimidating. It might help to have a meeting with the member to express your concern about the behaviour and the adverse impact it has on the effectiveness of the committee, and to try to find out what lies behind it. Such an approach, carefully handled, may produce resolution, whereas simply ignoring the problem is unlikely to do so.

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Reviewing the work of the committee

  • If your committee is in the Senate/Academic Board/Faculty system, Rule 3 requires that its performance is monitored and reviewed regularly. The aim of this is to pinpoint and address any areas of difficulty. This will normally require that the Executive Officer arrange for the committee to self-review its performance regularly (not more than annually) using a formal questionnaire, and that the Executive Officer prepare a summary of the outcomes for the committee's consideration and action.

  • Don't wait for a formal review to identify and address any obvious problems. If you recognise problems in the operation of your committee at any stage, discuss and try to resolve these with appropriate people (for example, the Executive Officer if problems relate to documentation, individual members if particular behaviours or attitudes are adversely affecting the committee's operations).

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Acting on the outcomes of the Review

  • Once a Review has been conducted and the outcomes presented to the committee, discuss with members any problems identified, and get the committee to make a decision on any action to be taken.

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Taking part in induction meetings for new members

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