My Robert’s Rules Learning Curve
District 91 Director Jean Gamester, DTM
Before I became District 91 Director, I had attended and participated in lots of district council meetings. I thought I had the hang of it when I took on the District Director role, but it turned out that my predecessors had made it look easy.
I was fortunate to get a clue that I was on a steep learning curve when I ran my first District Executive Committee meeting in September with the Area and Division Directors. It was fairly light, nothing that couldn’t be handled, but I realised that Robert’s Rules were less of a list of rules and more of a whole new language, especially when it came to handling motions. And handling motions becomes more complicated when you take into account that we have a detailed set of governing documents in Toastmasters, and we need to make sure that any motion doesn’t conflict with them.
We had lots of motions in our first council meeting of the year, so I’ve learned a thing or two about them. As we run up to the second district council of the year, I thought I would share a few things that I have learned and some views that I have formed on the subject.
Firstly, what is a motion? It’s a formal proposal by a council member that the group take certain action. Every year we get some regular motions, for example to accept the report of the committee that is formally nominating candidates for election or to accept a proposal to realign clubs to areas and divisions. In both of these cases, the motions are pretty detailed and they are the result of a lot of work by people who have accepted a role in shaping the proposals, and have done lots of pre-council consultation with appropriate people and groups.
Before council meetings, we ask for people to raise motions in advance, so that council members can consider them in advance. Raising them in advance also allows me, as chair, to consider them and advise the person on whether the motion is valid and whether the outcomes may be better achieved in a better way. I had heard of my predecessors having lots of these conversations before council meetings in previous years, and indeed, when it came to my turn, I also had lots of those pre-council conversations too.
I’ve learned that there are times when a motion is invalid, when they go against our rules and bylaws. For example, a motion to eliminate the district council altogether wouldn’t work because the district council is a part of our formal governance – it is described in the district administrative bylaws which we, as a District, don’t have the power to change.
Through my experiences, I have come to the conclusion that there are times when a motion is inappropriate, even if it is allowed under the rules. That’s when it seeks to impose a detailed solution when it would be the role of an appointed individual or a group to work through and engage on options and solutions. For example, it’s the role of the elected District Director to appoint roles and committees each year, and that person might appoint a group to consider putting in place online facilities for virtual committee meetings. Such a group might investigate and consult people on a range of options before coming up with a formal proposal. Such a proposal might need to go to council, or it might just be dealt with as part of the day to day running of the district. The alternative, and in my view, inappropriate scenario, would be for an individual to work alone and come up with a detailed solution, including the tools to be used and the timelines for delivery, and present all of that in a motion for the council to accept or deny. In my view, that’s not appropriate because if it was approved, it bypasses the process of the elected leaders organising the work and appointing people to do a full investigation and consultation if needed.
Fortunately, there is an alternative way to get action happening on something like this – you can raise a motion to get someone to consider an area. In this example, you could raise a motion that the district leadership team (DLT) explores options for providing technology for virtual committee meetings. If that motion was agreed, the DLT would organise such an options appraisal and report back on either their recommendations or the action they took at a future meeting. That way the issue is raised and the leaders still get to do their role, the things they were elected and / or appointed to do.
I have also learned that a key part of the role of chair is to ensure the smooth running of the council meeting, and that people make judgements about whether they will participate in leadership roles based on the professionalism of the council meeting, where our leadership is on show. Therefore, it is really vital that the chair does ensure smooth running, and one area for them to manage is debate. Robert’s Rules allows for lots of debate as a default – each person can speak twice on a topic for 10 minutes – that’s quite a lot for a meeting with 150 people attending! So we regularly use the option allowed in those rules to limit debate to, for example, one minute per person – because otherwise our council meetings would be at risk of overrunning and people would probably stop coming! This is always done with the agreement of the council. In the case of Toastmasters, we are pretty good at getting our point across quickly thanks to our Table Topics training, so in my view, limiting the debate still allows voices to be heard.
Finally, I learned that I need to balance two roles. Firstly, the objective chair, ensuring smooth running and that all voices are heard. Secondly, the District Director, elected to run the district, someone who has views on how things are run and updates to provide. So as a default, I am the objective chair. Sometimes I “yield the chair” to another member of the leadership team, so that I can participate in the discussion and deliver reports. The key is being clear on which role I am playing at any time!
Happily, I was helped on my learning curve by our fabulous Parliamentarian David Sutcliffe and our Program Quality Director Vanessa King who went and found out lots about how all of this works when she was LGM. Lots of my predecessors shared their experiences and ideas with me. The district is now the proud owner of not just ‘Robert’s Rules of Order’ (the full 716 page version), but also, thankfully, the shortened “in brief” version (a mere 197 pages). I look forward to chairing my second District 91 Council meeting in May, when I hope my learning curve will have flattened out a little!