This past weekend I had the chance to serve as parliamentarian for a local political convention of about 240 delegates. In these lower level conventions there are always two things delegates are most interested in accomplishing: Endorsing candidates for local races and getting themselves elected as delegates to congressional and state level conventions.
As parliamentarian my job was to help the co-chairs enforce rules and make myself generally useful so that the convention would be expedient and orderly. Between consulting with the chairs and occasionally dishing out some unsolicited advice, I had the chance to pay attention to what was happening during this six hour convention. Regardless of the type of meeting I attend, if I’m not leading it, I am learning from it. Here are four insights I took away from this one.
Spell out the rules
In this particular convention, there were eight and half pages of rules that every delegate received when registering. One of the first items of business is the approval of the rules and agenda. On this day they did. At other conventions I’ve seen battles break out over the rules that took more than an hour to sort out. At another convention that happened on the same day, they got into a three hour rules fight at the beginning of the convention. Ouch!
In most meetings I lead, we start with a list of 4-5 behavioral guidelines. In this meeting there were pages of detailed rules. Every meeting has a right amount of rules. Be thoughtful about what they should be, make sure everyone knows what they are, and get an agreement from people to follow them.
Use the wisdom (and power) of the group
During the voting for endorsement, a delegate made a motion to suspend the rules. He wanted to give each candidate a chance to address the convention for a second time, presumably so that delegates would have more information with which to make their decision. This wasn’t a bad idea, but the problem was that a vote had just been taken, and the results had not yet been announced. If one candidate prevailed, the motion would no longer be of value. Because the vote was still open, the chair declared the motion out of order.
The delegate got angry and appealed the decision of the chair. Without missing a beat the chair quickly stated something like, “The delegate has appealed the decision of the chair that the motion was out of order, all those in favor of sustaining the decision of the chair please signify by saying ‘Aye’.” A resounding “Aye” echoed through the hall, and the matter was quickly settled. It was a much better path than having the chair and delegate argue with each other from competing microphones.
Mix it up
During a lull in the action while waiting for the voting results, one of the chairs decided to recognize a delegate who was celebrating his 90th birthday. She led the hall in a joyful chorus of the birthday song. It was the perfect way to bring a sense of unity and release some tension during what was a hard-fought endorsement contest.
Know your process
Early in the day, I found out I would have to chair part of the convention that is the day’s most complicated, rule-laden activity. It’s a proportional voting method called walking subcaucus. It’s used to divide a hall of delegates into smaller affinity groups and then electing a certain number of delegates from each. The alternative is to elect people at large. If you’ve never seen it before; it involves lots of shouting, arm-twisting, counting, strategy and ultimately a fair amount of math.
Here’s one thing I knew before leading the activity. About half of the delegates have done this before and have a general understanding of how it works. The other half start off clueless, but do their best to catch on and generally fill their roles just fine. There are; however, a small number of campaign organizers that have studied the process and thoroughly understand it and how to use it to maximize their campaign’s advantage. Because of this, I wanted to make sure I was thoroughly updated on the process and used breaks in the action to bone up on the rules.
When it started, I felt confident and things seemed to be going well. At one point, I thought I was home free. Then I announced we would proceed to the next step and someone informed me we did not need to take that next step. The nine pages of rules I had and all my experience said we should take the next step. He told me there was a new rule in another document that would supersede our rules. Of course neither of us had that document. After some scrambling, I was able to find a copy of the document and sure enough, the rule was there. Note to self, don’t agree to do that again unless I have had a chance to confirm all the process rules myself.
Heavy process and rules can be helpful to control a group. They can also be used by savvier members of the group to achieve their own goals. If you have them, you need to understand them.
Keep on learning
Effectively leading meetings means continually learning what to do and not to do. In our work lives we all attend a lot of meetings. Some of us crazier ones even attend them in our free time. Look at each as an opportunity to develop your skills, whether from observing or practicing. With time, you’ll get better at leading great meetings.
Image credit: Tom LaForce