Elizabeth Balgobin: Sitting on a judging panel taught me to listen better

Judging the Sheila McKechnie Recognition Awards was a masterclass in listening and chairing, writes our columnist

Elizabeth Balgobin
Elizabeth Balgobin

I have had a very reflective summer, one way or another. It is the start of the new school year, when many of us take up something new or set ourselves a goal. This summer, without really planning it, I found myself learning about listening, decision-making, governance and chairing. One meeting in particular was a masterclass in all four.

I was honoured to be asked to judge a category in the Sheila McKechnie Recognition Awards, which celebrate people who demonstrate their commitment to and effectiveness in tackling the root causes of injustice and inequality. The judging panel included people with lots of experience and some who were new to the process. A few knew each other already and some did not know anyone. The panel also included some of the foundation board members, who were mindful of their duties to the organisation and not just to the job in hand.

Judging process

We had the award papers in good time. We had all done our homework and came prepared. How wonderful is that? We had a fairly stellar line-up of entrants to consider and each of us had identified a worthy winner. Job done, surely? Not quite.

This is where the chair came into his own. He had planned the session and how he would chair it. It was practical and inclusive, time-focused and encouraging, strict and humorous. He did not know most of us but made sure we all got to know each other and he listened carefully not just to what we said, but also to the way we said it. I also noted how he spent time reading the room.

The balance was pretty perfect and it was impressive to watch so many skills being used simultaneously and seamlessly. Our chair kept the whole process on track, enjoyable and participative. That was not easy when there were lots of big personalities around the table.

There we were, all fighting our corners for the winners we wanted. How much listening goes on in those situations? We have all been in those meetings where someone keeps saying the same thing over and over again and we stop hearing it.

There was a bit of that, but there was also a lot of listening - not just hearing the words spoken, but also taking in what was being said and adding it to our thoughts. The chair's process helped. We talked through every application before dismissing any of them. Some that I had put lower down on my list rose up after I heard how others had assessed the application. The same happened with other panel members. When we had to reduce the list by half, we were able to do so in good conscience because we had heard and understood all of the cases for and against.

The decision-making was the difficult bit. Did I mention we had stellar applications to consider? We had four that all or most of us would have been happy to name as the winner. We discussed whether it would be possible to make the award to all four, as they all worked in different areas.

The voice of reason, also known as Linda Butcher, chief executive of the foundation, soon put us straight. The panel, including her board members, looked to her to keep us within the rules. The board members took care to ensure that the award was made in a way that matched the ethos of the organisation, and we were reminded to think "what would Sheila have done?", which helped to focus our thoughts.

When asked what I did this summer, I have been telling people that I took a masterclass in listening and chairing. Out of that class have come some new ideas on managing difficult decisions and how to address some of the more tedious aspects of governance. I now have to test these out on a real board.

After a lot more discussion, we chose Ben Lyons from Intern Aware as the winner, which was announced at the award event on 10 September.

Visit the Sheila McKechnie Foundation website and see how hard our decision was. By the by, Ben Lyons was my initial choice, I'm pleased to say.

Elizabeth Balgobin is chair of Voice4Change England and a charity governance consultant

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