How many board meetings have you attended where you felt it was productive, convivial, transparent and empowering for all directors? Where you felt that there was actual time to leverage the talent around the table, and that while everyone had to be a professional and remain independent, there was a sense of collaboration towards clear goals within the board and with management?
In my recent post “Be a Great Board Chair in 10 Steps,” my sixth tip was inviting Chairs to “own and adhere to a clear agenda.” The Chair not only owns the agenda but has the responsibility of leading an effective board meeting. Being effective doesn’t imply being sterile, being self-serious or being a “suit,” but creating an environment for collaboration, transparency and getting business done. While the people around the table are smart and have serious decisions to make, there is no reason for these meetings to have a climate where participants can’t feel at ease.
I have attended many board meetings as an observer and a participant, have helped lead them for private, non-profit and public boards and have presented at them when I was a VP of Marketing, CMO and management consultant. Too often, they have felt cold, with an uninviting atmosphere and no levity. These meetings sometimes feel as if the CEO (or the Executive Director for a non-profit board) is put to the test, management is being scrutinized and there is an atmosphere of “us versus them.” And we all know too well how much executives and their direct reports burn the midnight oil to prepare for board meetings and to ensure that the “board book” is distributed well in advance. The preparation can be very stressful for many executives or the CEO– people working for management while leading and managing their day-to-day responsibilities.
If you want to elevate your board meetings beyond “bored meetings,” be “on.” How would you approach the board table if you imagined you were on display, and that every move and every word were being watched by all stakeholders? Be engaged and turned on by the possibilities. Imagine that every minute of the meeting is in the spotlight. Work together to ensure that everybody who is contributing to the content of the presentations and the information being presented understands how to optimize yours and the CEO’s ability to fully engage the board in its oversight and guidance role. It is not an easy task given that corporate and private boards reconvene on a quarterly basis.
Every single board meeting is like participation in a final. You don’t get to go back or dwell on could haves and should haves, given that the board in its entire composition is meeting so very few times and that most members are distant from the operational daily grind. It’s a challenge that the board is removed from daily operations, but that’s also where its valuable objectivity comes from. It’s also a challenge that the board meets so infrequently, as a lot can happen between meetings.
Here are my 10 tips to help Board Chairs lead powerful and effective board meetings.
- Involve your board in your prep. Take time before the meeting to confer with board members about issues that might be controversial or challenging, but which must be addressed. Don’t assume that all board members will arrive prepared for the meeting, having read the materials. Making time to connect with them beforehand will encourage them to make the effort to prepare because they’ll feel engaged.
- Get in-sync with the CEO. Coordinate with the CEO before the meeting to determine what must be incorporated. You must be assured that there won’t be any surprises. The CEO has the responsibility to ensure that the “right” information will be presented at the board meeting so that strategic choices, consequences, risks and trade-offs can be evaluated by the board. Invite your CEO to leverage dashboards for depicting progress (or lack thereof) to accurately communicate the total picture at a glance. Too many slides, too many presentations, create a one-way meeting, defeating the purpose of leveraging the board. Provide guidance to the CEO regarding the board materials without getting in the way. Encourage your CEO to provide guidance to her executives to not dwell on irrelevant details. Consider rehearsing together, and encourage the CEO to rehearse with members of the management team who will be presenting.
- Walk in with a clear agenda that you can adhere to. Don’t under-estimate the importance of having a clear agenda that you and the CEO have agreed on after having collected input from all of your directors and reflected on your goals and expectations. Adhere to the agenda, but be flexible if you need to adapt to get the right things approved, based on the information shared around the table by directors and the management team.
LEADING THE MEETING
- Convene and adjourn your meeting on time. It is your duty to ensure that all members will be heard, that you will deliberate in a constructive manner and that decisions will be made through a known process. Allow for time for deliberation. Too many board meetings fail to leverage the talent and views represented by the directors, as little-to-no time is being allocated for proper deliberation. Skipping deliberation is a missed opportunity.
- Demonstrate and expect respect for the proceedings. Make sure you’re there early, that the CEO is in the room before the rest of the board arrives, and that you’re united in setting an example of professionalism and punctuality. Walking-in late, frazzled or rushed doesn’t instill a good meeting climate from the start. Ask everyone to silence their mobile devices, and request that they not be kept on the table during the meeting.
- Open with a clear expression of the goals and expectations of the meeting. While you might think “it is a routine board meeting,” it never is. For every meeting, while there are standard items that you will address, you must know what you intend to achieve. Based on the current drivers, the restraining forces, the uncontrollable, recent crises, the competition and leadership, how will you and your directors be vigilant? What must you achieve?
- The first business should be “old business.” Follow up on action items from the prior board meeting. Don’t assume that all members are in alignment and in the know if these items were addressed post the prior meeting, and before this meeting—minimally share a status.
- Ask the right questions. The right questions lead to the right answers and solutions. To be great, a Board Chair, committee chairs, lead directors and board members all have to learn to ask the right questions. This is also key to effectively leading the executive session.
- Conclude with clarifying next steps. Get an agreed-upon action items list before the end of the meeting for both the board and management. Agree on the priorities for the committees.
ASSESS THE MEETING’S EFFECTIVENESS
- Follow up with the CEO after the meeting. Schedule time for this as soon as possible after the meeting. Ask each other how you both felt the meeting went. Be open with each other about what could have been addressed more effectively overall, by you and him/her. Assess how each board director engaged, listened and added value. If there is a concern, don’t resist addressing it directly. Agree about how to approach any directors who require feedback, and take care of it quickly.
Perhaps the most important take-aways from this list are the concepts of being fully prepared, being accountable for your role and the people you’re working with and having a functional relationship with the CEO. In any event, having a reputation for running a tight meeting is an asset.
It is an art to lead an effective meeting, let alone a board meeting, covering what must be covered in the time given, achieving all of the goals, fully leveraging the talent in the room in the face of meeting very few times in the course of a year, and inspiring all directors to be committed at their highest level.