Keep board meetings focused
Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Many factors detract from good board meetings. They range from a poor setup to an ill-designed agenda. Some executives have described their board as having attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Association and chamber executives attending the U.S. Chamber Foundation's Institute for Organization Management offered suggestions on how to keep the board focused.
Consent agenda — Distribute reports in advance of the meeting with the agenda notice. If directors prepare by reading the reports in advance (it is their fiduciary duty of care), then a motion can be made to "accept the reports as provided." Controversial items in reports can be moved to the regular business, if needed. Using a consent agenda provides more time for priority issues.
Respect time — Everyone's time is valuable. Demonstrate respect for time by ensuring that meetings are called for good reason — postpone if there is no reason to convene. If an important issue arises between meetings, use online meetings or delegate authority to an executive committee. Start and end meetings on time.
Board development — Plan an annual orientation for the board. Design it as a "refresh and blend" to update directors on priorities and budget while giving new directors a chance to blend into the governance team.
Set ground rules — Agree upon general ground rules for the board. These might include insisting on accountability for commitments, professionalism in association dealings, confidentiality, respect among volunteers and staff, timely responses and acting as a role model.
We are in the weeds — Conversations may drop from the level of governance to tactics. Directors and staff should recognize the descent in conversations by posing, "Is this governance, or are we doing committee work?"
Craft the agenda — Design a meeting agenda to achieve results. If reports and updates dominate, move them to the "consent agenda" to make room for meaningful discussions. Have a process for adding items in advance of meetings. Eliminate the usual call for "new business" at the end of the meeting.
Timed agenda — Add time markers to the agenda. For instance, financial report (10 minutes), legislative action (30 minutes). Time indicators should frame the length and depth of discussions.
Leadership development — Provide training to directors so they understand their responsibilities. Ask them to sign a commitment form acknowledging they will work to advance the mission and goals, serve the members and read the governing documents, for example.
Room setup — The room, board table and seating make an impact. An open U with the chief elected officer at the closed end of the table works best. Be sure there is access to adjust the room temperature and enough space for food and beverage. Consider whether providing a meal is a distraction due to waiter service, a buffet line or eating.
Digital or paper — Directors are transitioning from printed notebooks and paper to displaying reports on their tablets. Project reports on a central screen to keep directors focused on the discussion.
Mission focused — The mission statement should be familiar to the board. Keep it on the agenda and post it on the meeting room wall. Start meetings with a mission moment, reminding directors how the work of the association has had significant impact. A frequent refrain might be, "Does this discussion advance our mission?"
Call-ins — Meetings require a quorum. Instead of in-person attendance, calling in may be convenient, but callers can be a distraction with background noises or dropping off the call. Set protocols for directors on the phone and promote in-person attendance to maximize understanding and engagement.
Guest attendance — Some guests are included because they are identified in the bylaws, often called ex-officio members. Other guests are drop-ins, wondering what the board is doing. Guests can be a distraction and change the dynamics of board discussion.
Minute taking — Don't let the board secretary try to record every statement made. In most cases the advice is "brief is better." Follow a template rather than making the minutes look like a newsletter with interesting details. Ask legal counsel whether they suggest recording the names of the motion maker and seconder.
Rely on the road map — The strategic plan is the road map. Keep it on the board table. If new projects are suggested, check them against the plan to see if adjustments must be made.
Assessment — Take a few minutes before adjournment to ask directors if they think the meeting was effective and how it can be improved. Directors might suggest less paper, shorter or fewer meetings, changes in room setup and location, time of day, etc.
A board should not act as if it has ADHD. Discuss ways to improve focus and reduce distractions.
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