The job of board members is very complex, and by nature, intensely collaborative. Making the most of board meetings isn’t just a good habit to aspire to, it’s essential to good governance, strong leadership, and healthy organizations. In this blog, CompassPoint Senior Project Director Marla Cornelius shares eight actionable tips to unlock the potential of board members so they can make the most of their time together.
They are such a waste of time! People are never prepared! We don’t focus on the right things! These are common complaints we hear about meetings—and board meetings are no exception. Perhaps there are some meetings that can be eliminated, but because governance is a collective process, meetings are a necessity of board work. But really, the problem isn’t meetings. The problem is bad meetings. And bad meetings are not just a frustration, they’re a barrier to important work. Good meetings increase member engagement, maximize collective wisdom, and ensure the right focus at the right time. Here are some ideas to set you on a path to better board meetings.
1. Board Packets: Board packets are part of the board meeting; the purpose being to provide the board with context and background information needed to prepare for the conversation ahead. A thoughtful packet cues up the meeting so that time is spent in robust dialogue and discussion and not on sharing information that should be read ahead of time. Which brings us to #2 below.
2. Ban Report-Outs: During board meetings, replace verbal report-outs with questions on the agenda that will provoke discussion. To help make this shift from information transmittal to inquiry and discussion, design agendas to include questions next to each topic area. If there are no relevant questions to go with a topic, then the information that it pertains to should be included in the board packet but doesn’t need space on the agenda. Creating an agenda this way reinforces the expectation that board members come prepared. Read the excellent book Governance as Leadership for more on inquiry agendas and how to frame discussion.
3. Hot Topics: As part of periodic board planning, identify the two or three most important issues that your board must address this year and use those “hot topics” to create overarching themes for board meetings. This will help you draft meaningful questions for the agenda and signal to the group the importance of the discussion. It will also link meetings from one month to the next so that there is continuity and momentum.
4. Meeting Agreements: To ensure healthy communication and foster a positive board culture consider establishing meeting agreements. Here are a few examples we use at CompassPoint:
- Try on new ideas and perspectives. Open your mind to new ideas. Be open to change; change does not imply blame or criticism of the past.
- It’s OK to disagree, but not OK to shame, blame, attack, or discount yourself or others. Seek instead, through deep listening and open questions, to help individuals find their own clarity.
- Step up participation and listening. Stay engaged and act in ways to help others stay engaged. No dominating and no hiding at meetings.
- Be aware of intent and impact. It is possible with the best of intentions to have a negative impact. Be open to learning and seeing “hard realities with soft eyes.” Turn from reactive judgment to compassionate inquiry.
- Don’t come to consensus too soon. It’s OK to let things simmer and it’s OK to change your mind. Create a parking lot for unresolved issues that the board needs to revisit at a later date.
Once you have agreements in place, evaluate your communication efforts by periodically asking: “How well are we living up to these agreements? Have we incorporated them so well that they have become ingrained? And, when we don’t honor them, how should we hold ourselves accountable?”
5. Shared Responsibility: There are various roles needed in any well-run meeting. It’s not always effective for one person to perform all roles. Consider rotating responsibility so that more individuals are holding responsibility for the success of the meeting. Here are some roles board members might play:
- Discussion Leaders: People identified ahead of time to lead different parts of the agenda.
- Timekeeper: This person helps keep the group on track. If an item is going over time, the timekeeper will check with the group to decide whether to adjust the remainder of the agenda or utilize a “parking lot” for items that need to be returned to at a later date.
- Minute Taker: Most boards require the secretary to take the official minutes, but this could be any member of the board or a staff person.
- Visual Recorder: Meeting participants can lose track of what has been said in a discussion and how the group’s comments are (hopefully) building toward conclusions. While there is always someone taking minutes for the legal record, minute takers aren’t designed to support the progress of discussion. That’s where a visual recorder can help. In addition to the minute taker, have someone chart the ongoing comments where everyone can see. Use the speakers’ words as much as possible to preserve the nuance.
6. Engage Everyone: When a group is large (e.g., eight or more members) it’s difficult to hold a sustained conversation where everyone is able to participate and contribute. There are a number of great facilitation techniques on the Liberating Structures website. Try the 1-2-4-All process. It’s a simple way to give everyone a chance to share their thoughts on a topic while maintaining an efficient use of meeting time. Here’s how it works:
1—Ask everyone to take a moment for individual reflection and write their comment or question on an index card.
2—In pairs, individuals share their cards with one another.
4—Each pair then joins another pair and compares notes again.
All—Each group of four selects the best ideas or highlights to share with the full group. Comments and questions are then visually recorded.
7. Most important issues first: It’s common for meetings to begin with the more mundane housekeeping items so that, in theory, they are quickly dispensed with and the remainder of the meeting can focus on the most important topic. But in practice, what often happens is that the meeting runs late and the topics at the end of the agenda get short shrift. Instead, start with the most important topics when the board is feeling energized and not pressed for time.
8. Consent Agendas: To ensure more time for robust discussion, adopt a consent agenda format to handle uncontested, routine business that does not require discussion. Typical items in a consent agenda might be acceptance of minutes, final approval of items already vetted, and acceptance of routine reports. Such items are grouped into one agenda item and the entire set is approved in one motion. But watch out! Although consent agendas are a good efficiency mechanism, be careful that important items that really do warrant discussion are not pushed through without proper vetting. To ensure that items are indeed appropriate for the consent agenda, provide sufficient background materials in the board packet that is distributed ahead of time. Allow members to request that an item be pulled out of the consent packet if they feel a discussion is necessary.
How do you ensure success at board meetings? Share your own best practices in the comments section below, or let us know which of these eight tips you’re most excited to try at your next meeting.
- Blog: “Embrace, Enable, and Educate: The Executive’s Role in Governance — Part 1 of a 2-Part Series”
- Blog: "Embrace, Enable, and Educate: The Board’s Participation in these CEO Strategies— Part 2”
- Blog: “Generative Thinking: The Board’s Highest Purpose”
- Blog: “Reflections (Thus Far) on Thriving as a Board Chair”
Marla is a senior project director at CompassPoint and board chair at DataCenter: A Research Justice Organization.