Tense meeting? Call a time-out, says Philly exec

Everyone comes to the meetings with a bias, says Katharine "Kathie" Morgan, the incoming president of a nonprofit that convenes committees that set voluntary industry standards for a host of products, from roofing material, to playground swing sets to aviation fuel. 

"In those technical committees, there are some passionate moments, for sure," Morgan said. 

That's not a surprise -- the smallest tweak of a standard could mean big changes in costs, profits and marketability. And, at the same time, the smallest change could compromise safety.

Morgan's organization, ASTM International in West Conshohocken, doesn't set the standards, but it does run meetings where manufacturers and government regulators go toe-to-toe with consumers and consumer advocates. Debates can be heated and ASTM personnel serve as traffic cops, keeping the meeting on keel.

In the end, Morgan says, she's always inspired by the willingness of each group member to set aside personal agendas in favor of a consensus about what constitutes the best possible standards. How does that happen when so much is at stake?

That's the question I posed during our Executive Q&A interview published in the business section of Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer.

Question: What's the best way in a heated meeting to reduce tension?

Answer: I think it's where we take a timeout. then I think you go back and focus on what are we trying to accomplish, revisit the goals. What's our objective? What are we trying to accomplish? And then I think we need to look at the facts. 


Q: Would you explain how the process works?

A: We have a staff manager who is assigned to every one of our technical committees. We have 145 committees and we have 22 staff managers. Each one of them works with several committees. They wear multiple hats, but their jobs are to be the policeman, to understand ASTM's rules and regulations, to make sure the committees follow their rules and regulations and to tell them what resources they have available.

We are there to coach, to guide, to train, to police. But our members are the ones chairing the meetings and facilitating the meetings. They are the officers, so they have some responsibility too for following their agendas. There are all sorts of tips we give them for a successful meeting. 

Q: Like what?

A: Make sure you have an agenda. Make sure you follow your agenda and make sure everyone know's what's on the agenda. Make sure everyone has all the information in advance so you don't have people saying, `I didn't get a chance to read this. I'm not prepared.' Set times for your agenda items so you can control the agenda. It's all about being prepared and anticipating the issues that could come up. There's a lot of work that can be done in between meeings. Our members know where the sensitive issues are. Our members know what's going to be controversial. There's work that can be done with smaller subsets of members. We call them task groups. We we get people together in small groups to try to develop some recommendations for the larger groups, so you're not brainstorming with 200 people in the roomn. 

Q: What about endurance? How can people endure all these meetings?

A: We get all energized by them. Our largest meeting is our petroleum committee. They get a couple thousand people at every meeting. There are probably 50 meeting rooms going on at the same time. The meetings may be anywhere from half hour long to all day, so you'll find that people are up and moving around. They aren't sitting in one place through. They are starting in gasoline meetings and then they are moving over to biodiesel and then they are moving to lubricants and then they are spending some time in additives in the afternoon. They are meeting with customers over lunch and there are hallway discussions, so there is more than just the standards work. These people are congregating with everyone in their industry -- their customers, their regulators, their suppliers.

Q: So they have more than one agenda while they are there? 

A: Absolutely. Their main purpose in being there is to influence the standards, that's job one, but they accomplish a whole lot more when they are there. 

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