A master class in the art of chairing a meeting

Lord Kingsdown died last month. He was best known as Chairman of the NatWest and then Governor of the Bank of England. I knew him as Robin Leigh-Pemberton and through playing cricket on the private ground at his estate in Kent.

They were happy days and a throwback in time.

Driving into the estate, and through a field to park in the long grass surrounding the ground; changing in the musty warmth of the ‘pavilion’ which, with no running water, was not much more than a shed; ambling slowly to the wicket to inspect the pitch; buffet lunch washed down with pints of freshly delivered Shepherd Neame (in the garage); and all in an air of genteel civility and the polite behaviour that Robin himself personified.

One day, we lined up to be introduced to Harold Macmillan as he sat in a deck chair to watch the cricket. Such was his eyesight, I’m afraid, that I am sure he couldn’t see who was shaking his gnarled, blotched, quivering hand let alone a cricket ball sixty yards away.

I don’t meet many Prime Ministers so it was a special privilege for me to meet one who was at Oxford before the First World War where his friends were that select band of brothers who gave their lives for me to play cricket in some corner of a field that is forever England.

From his obituaries, you might think Robin was a provocative figure. His appointment by Margaret Thatcher as Governor of the Bank of England was seen as the archest of old school tie arrangements. But, it says here, he was ‘far from being ‘Thatcher’s poodle’ as critics of his appointment had feared – he proved determined to take his own line on European monetary union and Thatcher refused even to speak to him.

Me? As someone who despises the tribal loyalties of British politics based, as they are, on a bygone era, I have always preferred to judge people as I see them.

And I can say that Robin Leigh-Pemberton was as gentlemanly as an English country gentleman can be. He was kind, courteous and considerate. And generous. I happen to know he once congratulated a nineteen year old who had scored some runs by quietly slipping a fifty pound note into the teenager’s hand: ‘Well batted, young man. I hear you are off travelling. This might help.’

After more matches at Torry Hill, a letter arrived from his wife, Rose, asking me to raise a side for what was called Robin Leigh-Pemberton’s XI against another team close to his heart. Thus, albeit a generation removed (I had played schoolboy cricket with two of their sons), I now came to know Robin and Rose on a more equal basis.

After his retirement from the Bank of England, and being that kind of guy, Robin became Chairman of the cricket club we played for and I realised he would be chairing our next committee meeting.

As I came to appreciate, attending his meetings was, truly, to witness a master at work.

I particularly admired the art of the quiet put-down, made possible by the knowledge that he was better prepared than anyone else around the table:

‘Thank you Sam. That’s a good point but I think you’ll find we’ll get to that under item five.’

‘Thank you Nicholas. That’s a very good point but we did discuss it at the last meeting, as I’m sure you have read in the minutes we have just approved.’

Or, sliding the glasses to the end of the nose, a quiet, cutting:

‘Have you finished Tony? Thank you. Shall we move on?’

Brilliant.

Early in my career at Ogilvy & Mather, we were trained how to manage meetings: make sure people are seated in the right place; that everyone has a copy of the agenda and, in those pre-tablet days, a pen and paper; and listen to, and take note of, what is being said.

Most important of all, do everything you can to think through and predict every eventuality in advance. Preparation is the key. Read the notes. Consider the facts.

Preparation, preparation, preparation.

And a tidy mind.

Yes, even in the creative businesses in which I have spent my career, there is no substitute for an ordered, uncluttered brain when it comes to managing a meeting.

By the way, one trick I was taught early in my career is how impressive it is, when speaking, to have the mental discipline to announce: ‘There are five things I have to say’ and then train your brain to remember all five with accuracy and in the right order.

I am sure you can learn these things.

Unforgivably, I digress. Let’s return to the point at hand and why attending meetings chaired by Robin Leigh-Pemberton was, truly, to witness a master at work.

Surely the point of all meetings is to:

1. Consider the points on the agenda.

2. Listen to all points of view.

3. Reach a consensus.

4. Make decisions.

5. Agree next actions.

I can honestly say that in all the interminable meetings I have attended, it is very rare for at least one person not to repeat what they, or someone else, has said, speak off message, ramble on about insignificant trivia, make witless asides or crack unfunny jokes.

And, in so many of these meetings, my thoughts have strayed to the calm wisdom, the clear intelligence and, yes, the exceptional skill of Robin Leigh-Pemberton to work through an agenda in half the time anyone else could manage.

Attending his meetings was, truly, to witness a master at work.

All that remains is for me to convey my sympathies to the Leigh-Pemberton family and a Happy Christmas to all.

 

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