Board meetings shouldn’t be bad meetings
David Arons, the CEO of the National Brain Tumor Society, is an extremely patient person, and I’m thankful for that just about every day. I’m a longtime volunteer, highly active board member, and donor to the organization he runs, which means that David basically has to put up with an endless stream of questions, ideas, and feedback from me.
Recently, David and I were on a call batting around ideas to engage the board on an important topic. We chatted about the pros and cons of prepared remarks and slides, key questions to spark discussion, exercises, and more. We surfaced tensions like the need to help newer board members to get up to speed, time limitations, group dynamics, and interpersonal tensions. Then David said, “What we’re really talking about is how best to communicate this content– not the content itself.” David’s observation about our conversation was a lightbulb moment for me, and I found myself thinking about it for days.
How many meetings are conducted with a sole focus on sharing content– ignoring entirely how that content might be presented to be as effective and engaging as possible? I’d wager the majority of them.
When meetings suck
Meetings that suck lack purpose, take too long, include people that shouldn’t be there, and feel like a waste of time. Meetings that rock feel focused, productive, and lead to outcomes that might not have happened otherwise. Unless the subject matter of the meeting has nothing to do with your work (in which case, you might not need to be there at all), meetings are frequently a drag because how they are poorly designed and run– and that’s a communications problem.
If you plan or run a lot of meetings, check out Cameron Herold’s, “Meetings Suck,” and Mamie Kanfer Stewart’s “Momentum: Creating effective, engaging, and enjoyable meetings”. Both are short, helpful books, that are well worth the time they take to read. It may seem like a deeply nerdy thing to do, but thinking proactively about what a meeting should accomplish, what work should be done in advance, and how to keep the right people in the room productively engaged, are skills that can have a profound impact on your ability to collaborate at work and worth investing some time in.
Board meetings shouldn’t be bad meetings
Board meetings (and perhaps committee meetings or other places where donors and volunteers collaborate with staff) are an entirely different flavor of meeting because they have a number of uniquely challenging variables.
First, board meetings have unusual power dynamics. The staff have often shape much of the meeting’s agenda despite it not really being their meeting (as board meetings are, above all, intended for board members to engage in the work of effective governance).
Staff are often put in the position of prepping what will be presented and then letting board members, many of whom are less familiar with it then they are, present it. Add to that, these board members have significant power to influence their success in the organization— so it’s not easy to correct, redirect, or manage them when they veer off course.
The staff, particularly the CEO, also has deeper subject matter expertise and a clearer sense of what the meeting must accomplish than board members probably do. They also have the benefit of day-to-day engagement with the organization’s work, whereas board members are more likely to have periods of inactivity which might make it harder for them to recall or understand the subject matter. Staff members often spend time educating the board, only to find the information they recently shared has been forgotten. But because the board isn’t usually immersed in the day-to-day work, retaining complex ideas and details necessary to govern can take focus, engagement, and repetition. That, in turn, requires patience and understanding from staff who may find it frustrating to have to re-explain something over and over.
Making your board meetings better
No matter the frequency or length of your meetings, staff and the board should align about the goal for each meeting and design an agenda that works for everyone. Here are a few ways to make your board meetings even better:
- Define goals for each meeting and share them in advance (with materials). If the goal of the Q4 meeting is to vote on next year’s budget, align on objectives for the upcoming year, and discuss a new policy that needs input, articulating that beforehand in will help your board members stay focused. It may also help them prep for the meeting more effectively by providing some criteria with which to review the materials they receive in advance. Send those goals alongside any other materials at least a week before the meeting so board members have adequate time to review them.
- Don’t treat each item on the agenda the same way all day. Many all-day meetings become marathons where slides are presented, people drone on, questions are asked, brief discussions occur, and votes are conducted. By the afternoon, most people are losing stamina and focus– and are only partially paying attention. Consider breaking up your agenda with modules that require board members to stand up, talk in different groups or structures, or share. That might mean having a “mission moment” in which a board member facilitates an exercise, or where work is done in small groups. Design the agenda purposefully to keep your board (and staff) members’ energy high.
- Prepare for complete technical failure. Many a great board meeting has been derailed by a broken projector, shoddy wifi, or missing dongles. Make someone on staff accountable for tech success to avoid wasting precious time during the meeting. That usually means arriving early to set up, packing a bag with all sorts of back up options, and printing all slides to have on stand-by if needed: essentially, being prepared for the possibility that anything and everything could fail– and ensuring it doesn’t slow down the meeting if it does.
- Create ways for board members to productively talk. Talking about something helps most people process information and make it their own. Structuring board meetings so board members get to talk about important subjects– not just have it explained or presented to them– is critical to helping them get beneath the surface. Good governance requires conversation and debate– not just listening and nodding.
Consider prepping specific questions for discussion that get the board talking– but in focused ways that work toward the meeting’s goals. Many board members will naturally adopt a contrarian “how can I poke holes in this?” attitude, which can deflate staff and become counterproductive. Keep them on track by reminding them what the objective of the conversation is and facilitating discussion, not controlling it.
Try to break from the usual “one big conversation” format regularly so underrepresented groups (perhaps women, people of color, or others who may be in the minority), the very shy, and people who don’t like public speaking are given varied forums to share their insights.
- Create ways for staff and board to bond outside of the board room. If the board and staff are able to have dinner the night before the board meeting, meet up at the organization’s events, or connect in other more casual contexts, the social capital that’s built will help when conflict emerges in the boardroom.
- Share and close the loop with next steps. Some board members get frustrated and may feel a meeting is a waste of their time if they don’t hear that changes have been made or loops closed. Highlight action items in the minutes and refer to previous conversations, decisions, and the resulting actions at future meetings.