Money Matters

The ‘other items’ trap

By Sirajuddin Aziz
Mon, 09, 23

Meetings are aptly described as the best alternative for work. The outcomes of most meetings lie buried under the sand dunes of neglect and decay, arising out of inability to follow up on actions. (If it reminds the readers of the government or cabinet meetings, it is a no brainer).

The ‘other items’ trap

Meetings are aptly described as the best alternative for work. The outcomes of most meetings lie buried under the sand dunes of neglect and decay, arising out of inability to follow up on actions. (If it reminds the readers of the government or cabinet meetings, it is a no brainer).

All meetings, regardless of which aspect or sector of life they may relate to, need to have in the minimum ‘an agenda’. The agenda spells out the broad areas that will most likely come up for discussion in the meeting. It is an outline of topics that go under close scrutiny and focused discussion. For every agenda item a person is designated on a pre fact basis to make and later lead the presentation and discussion upon it. The relative document is either sent as part of the ‘board package’ for the meeting or the papers can be given to the attendees at the time of the discussion in relation to the agenda item.

Having an agenda is critically important, for it saves costly executive time; it is by virtue of this document, that participants usually come prepared to the meeting and hence don’t require to be made aware of the subject and its intricacies during the limited time of the meeting.

Agenda dictates that the meeting is held in an orderly fashion and that the meeting remains focused and goal oriented. The existence of an agenda also helps in keeping the proceedings structured; the purpose is served with clarity, the responsibilities are known and fixed and more significantly the time is efficiently and profitably utilised.

Since the objective of any meeting is meant to achieve a result, the purpose of the meeting has to be made known to all participants and it is the agenda document that provides the necessary information. The theme, trend and tenor has to remain consistent. The meeting is not meant to convert itself into a circus, where individuals who are present, feel that they are performers on the trapezium, swinging from one subject to the other, without seeking complete discussion on any item. It is the responsibility of the chairperson to ensure that the meeting retains its corporate character. Each presenter, on a prior basis, must be made aware of how much of the precious board time they are allowed to consume.

The role of the chair person is critically important for the conduct of the meeting. His/her job is to ensure that the agenda items are firstly pre discussed with the chief executive officer and company secretary, and then that they are sequentially followed; and that the presentations/discussions end within the stipulated time.

The special ability that the chairperson must exhibit and use, is the tact and craft, to stop ‘intrusions’ during the presentations. All boards have at-least one, if not all, celluloid stars performers, who exist with a belief that by asking questions (most of which will qualify to be framed as the most stupid) to prove that they are , firstly alert and not napping and secondly to impress the chair and the rest of attendees and lastly to showcase ‘intellect’. (It is another matter that once they open their mouth, they prove everything contrary to the virtue of intellect). These types of board members rule the roost, where the chairperson is gullible to remarks like, ‘you’re wearing a lovely tie ‘ or ‘your knowledge on every aspect of business is solid and profound’. I have personally heard words of similar import and meaning in many meetings across various geographies/cultures. Human weakness is ever ready to be tickled and exploited.

In the world of accountancy and finance, two accounting heads demand close scrutiny: sundry creditors and sundry debtors. The imperative need to monitor these accounts arises, as the nomenclature suggests; the meaning of ‘sundry’ is various, miscellaneous - collecting different items at one place. There are various types of transactions that are collected and parked in a single account. Since they usually constitute what cannot be appropriately branded, it is such transactions that are placed here. The need to review and reconcile periodically is a necessity.

Akin to this, most agendas also usually end up with ‘any other item with the permission of the chair’. This one agenda item is best described by the phrase, ‘one size fits all’. Anything that does not fit the main agenda items is “parked” here.

Other items can be as seductive as in Bollywood’s parlance are the ‘item songs’, if and when it includes perks and privileges, extension of contracts, facilities, etc, relating to either the chairman or the chief executive officer. Since other items are a rushed affair, it is believed that the proposals would be approved without much enquiry and discussion. Hence the intent to place what could potentially be contentious issues, under ‘other items’ is driven by desire to seek sanctions without much deliberation.

On the agenda, the last item is always titled as ‘other matters with the permission of the chair’ or simply, ‘other items’. This in my view is the most dangerous element of the agenda; it may sound innocuous but could be deadly by implication. The urge on the part of the chair or the participant to whom the ‘item’ could relate may deliberately put the most serious of issues requiring decision making, under the head of ‘other items’ ; what otherwise could have been a perfect subject to qualify as a separate agenda item is tucked away under that banner. What essentially happens for such ‘other items’ is that they receive no importance or attention. Since this is the last item on the agenda — the interest of the participant is expected to have waned — to the degree of disinterestedness. Consequently, a decision is imposed. The minutes in such cases however will record with accuracy all ‘other items’ in complete and full detail.

It is perilously inappropriate to use the ‘other item’ route for taking decisions of significance and impact. The chairperson and the CEO must remain on guard that this module is not abused .

The writer is a senior banker and a freelance columnist