11 November 2019 by Dr Rob Robson ACG
Effective minute-taking requires a diverse range of skills
It is probably safe to say that when someone is making key job-related decisions following their formal education, becoming a minute taker will not be at the forefront of their career plans. In truth, unless a person pursues a company secretarial role, becoming a minute taker is often more by accident than design. The reality is that people frequently find themselves called upon to take minutes, with little guidance on how they are expected to produce an accurate record of what took place.
Minute takers require a diverse range of skills in order to execute their role effectively. They must be active listeners, able to evaluate and summarise key elements of the discussion with reference to the meeting’s prime objectives. This requires the ability to filter out irrelevancies and capture the salient points; often related to subject matter that they only partially understand. They must then be able to take these ‘raw’ notes and turn them into a work of art: the final minutes that constitute a brief, authoritative account capturing the true flavour of the proceedings of the meeting, including all key decisions taken and actions agreed. Organisational and administrative capabilities are pre-requisite; as are excellent time management skills. In addition, minute takers must be emotionally intelligent, able to manage both themselves in terms of self-control, patience and interpersonal exchanges, and manage relationships with others, including the chair and the meeting participants.
Mastering this skills set represents a formidable challenge; particularly where the minute taker lacks self-confidence and assertiveness. Some may lack the necessary skills due to inadequate training – or no training at all – whereas others may possess the skills, but be applying them in the wrong way and experiencing frustration and stress as a result.
Some challenges may appear totally outside the minute taker’s control. Ambiguous agreements, a vague agenda, interruptions and a poor chair are just some of the factors that can make minute taking a daunting task. In addition, minute takers often face an uphill struggle in executing their role due to the perceptions of others. Where minute taking takes place in a cultural environment that does not foster appreciation for the true professional nature of the role, then levels of support may be inadequate and provision of appropriate training and development non-existent. Even when the role is perceived positively by others and undertaken by senior professionals, it will still present challenges: taking minutes is the bane of many a company secretary’s life. So, are these multifarious challenges insurmountable? By no means. However, much depends on the willingness of the minute taker to embrace the challenges of the role and on the willingness of the chair and others to demonstrate that they truly value the work undertaken by the minute taker.
Typically, and perhaps to a degree necessarily, minute takers tend to be reactive. This is understandable; they are constantly responding to the demands of others. However, this often results in simply moving from one meeting to the next, fighting through the usual series of stressful hurdles in order to satisfy demands and get the job done. Little, if any attention is given to addressing personal skills deficiencies or in seeking to minimise the problems caused by external factors. However, if minute takers are prepared to embrace the role more fully, then much can be gained through adopting a proactive stance. As a start point, minute takers should take a step back and think more strategically. Delegates who attend the Chartered Governance Institute’s training course Effective Minute Taking, always cite two perennial problems that induce stress: an ineffective chair and information-rich meetings that require more comprehensive notes.
The first thing then, is to evaluate the demands of each meeting in this regard. Knowing the challenges specific to each meeting means that preparation can be tailored according to need. For example, if at one particular meeting the chair is poor and offers little support to the minute taker, and, in addition the level of detail to record is high, then a focused preparation strategy can be created. In such a case, a proactive minute taker might decide to arrange a meeting with the chair to discuss how they might work more closely together as a team.
Perhaps the chair could provide periodic summaries during the meeting at the points where decisions are made and actions agreed. In addition, the two of them could meet briefly prior to the commencement of the meeting and for a few minutes afterwards. Regarding the need for more detailed notes, it is likely that information-rich meetings will include discussion on topic areas where the minute taker’s knowledge is limited. Proactively, the minute taker could take the initiative to speak, prior to the meeting, with meeting participants who are presenting the items where this knowledge and understanding is lacking. Effort could also be made - within reason - to read around the topic and undertake additional research, including clarification of relevant technical terms and commonly used jargon and acronyms.
A proactive minute taker would also be keen to actively address skills deficiencies. There is a tendency with many minute takers to write too much when taking notes. This is borne out of a fear of missing something important. However, this makes the writing of the final minutes a far longer process than it needs to be because much time is spent discarding irrelevant information; far better to discard the irrelevancies at the note taking stage. Rather than trying to write in parallel with the speaker, it is more effective to listen first, mentally summarise the key point, then record it in bullet point form. The proactive minute taker may opt to request training in this area, perhaps through attendance at a training course where these skills are taught. They would then be prepared to work at actively applying these techniques in the work setting. In addition, they could aim to develop, over time, their own form of personalised shorthand – a comprehensive repertoire of word abbreviations and symbols which can be applied in the note taking setting. A proactive minute taker would also seek to build up, again over time, comprehensive reference lists of words and phrases which could be used when composing the final minutes. In terms of developing qualities such as self-confidence and assertiveness, a proactive minute taker may seek to upskill through application of self-help material and/or attendance at formal training programmes. Embracing the role through actively pursuing self-development initiatives such as the ones described, should be seen as a worthwhile investment; in time the benefits will outweigh the costs.
The minute taker’s role is important. The minutes are the official record of the meeting and constitute evidence of the proceedings. They provide proof that the meeting actually happened, discussions took place and certain decisions were reached. It is essential therefore, that decisions are recorded accurately and that sufficient detail is provided to show clearly how those decisions were arrived at. In harmony with principles of good governance; the Financial Reporting Council’s Guidance on Board Effectiveness emphasises that the chair plays a key role in “ensuring the board has effective decision-making processes and applies sufficient challenge to major proposals”. It is also suggested that the chair should ensure that directors update their skills and knowledge base in order to be able to undertake their role effectively. Minute takers are responsible for producing minutes that are accurate and that effectively capture challenge and show evidence of robust decision-making. Surely then, it is only reasonable to expect that minute takers too would be provided with the opportunity to update their skills and knowledge base in order to be able to undertake their role effectively. Chairs that genuinely value the minute taking role, will ensure that such opportunities are provided.
Apart from being supportive by encouraging minute takers to attend appropriate training programmes and by facilitating this, there are many other ways that chairs can demonstrate that they genuinely value the role. One of the most important is simply to chair meetings in an effective manner. When this happens, everyone wins. The chair draws satisfaction from having presided over meetings which achieve their purpose and objectives, the participants feel involved and are able to contribute meaningfully to the decision-making process and the job of the minute taker is made far easier. With regard to the latter point, why is this the case? There are a number of reasons. Firstly, in an effective meeting, the first parts of the meeting (minutes of the previous meeting and matters arising) are covered relatively quickly; the minute taker is thus not involved in unnecessary note taking. Secondly, effective meetings are time-managed both in terms of the start and finish times and the timings for each individual item. In time-managed meetings, points tend to be made more succinctly and discussion tends to be more focused and on-point. Thirdly, effective meetings have decision-focused agendas, with main items broken down into a series of clear objectives. Knowing the key decision points within each item makes it far easier for the minute taker to listen, filter out irrelevancies, mentally summarise and record the decisions and actions.
A good chair will also summarise the key decisions for the benefit of all, including the minute taker. Finally, effective chairs manage ‘any other business’ (AOB) correctly. This means that AOB will only include items that are important and urgent that have come to light since the circulation of the agenda and have been cleared through the chair beforehand. This allows at least some time for planning. The chair can explain to the minute taker prior to the meeting what items (if any) will feature under AOB and the key objectives for each one.
There are other ways that the chair can show active support; for example, by being willing to meet with the minute taker both pre and post meeting and by developing a close working relationship which inspires the minute taker to develop and grow in the role. Of course, the meeting participants can play a part too. Welcoming the minute taker as a fellow professional, praising and commending and being open to discuss concerns will go a long way in helping the minute taker truly feel part of the team. Only when minute takers proactively embrace the role and chairs and meeting participants genuinely value the role will effective minute taking be achieved. This joint approach reflects good governance, and ultimately, this has to be in the best interests of everyone.