April 5th, 2017
Do you look forward to your board meetings? I didn’t think so. I go to board meetings several times a week, and most of them make me sad. The main reason? The typical meeting structure offers little opportunity for board members to LEAD.
Picture a conference room full of people with skills, talents, contacts, wisdom, experience, and passion for the mission— relegated to listening to a series of boring reports that aren’t tied to a common vision or strategic goals. The most important things are usually last on the agenda, and they don’t get the time they deserve because the other items took too long. Instead of steering the meeting, leaders are leaning back in their chairs with their arms crossed, or furtively checking their messages.
There are many reasons board meetings end up looking like this. One might be that strong executives don’t really want their boards very engaged, because they’ve been burned by micromanagers in the past, or they fear that a fired-up board might usurp some of their power.
Another reason is that we spend a lot of the time we have together listening to reports: the Executive Director’s report, the Finance report (which no one understands anyway), and committee reports. Often, board meeting time is wasted on committee-level work, like what the board members are expected to do to help with the next event.
Mostly, though, I think boring meetings are the result of benign neglect: whoever wants time on the agenda gets it, and there’s no overarching rationale for what the board spends its precious time on across the arc of a year.
The antidote to this problem is simple: create an environment where board members get to lead.
In their book Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards, authors Richard Chait, William Ryan, and Barbara Taylor distinguish three modes in which boards operate: the fiduciary mode, the strategic mode, and the generative mode.
When boards are operating in the fiduciary mode, they’re discussing things like budgets and contracts, compliance, risk, and legal responsibilities. When they’re operating in the strategic mode, they’re discussing things like goals and measurable outcomes, the relative merits of a collaboration, or what to do to broaden audience. When they’re operating in the generative mode, they’re temporarily suspending those other two modes, and thinking expansively about how to address a systemic issue.
When I see boards operating in the fiduciary mode, their heads are down, their pens are out, and they’re looking at fine print, maybe even squinting. When I see boards operating in the strategic mode, they’re sitting upright in their chairs, looking across the table at one another and thinking about the organization’s health. When they operate in the generative mode, they’re leaning back in their chairs with their hands behind their heads, saying, “What would happen if we thought about it this way?” Their view is beyond the organization, outside the walls of the room, and the conversation is animated and engrossing.
If we created more opportunities for boards to have generative conversations, they would find the strategic conversations more contextual and satisfying, and they would lean into the fiduciary conversations eagerly because the financial and legal topics would feel vital to accomplishing the big ideas they created up front.
Someone said once that we waste so much time in fiduciary, worrying about keeping our nose clean, that we never get to strategic or generative.
Here’s how to shift the content of your board meetings so leadership can emerge naturally. Imagine a board meeting with an agenda that unfolds like this:
• An opportunity to build community among the board members
• An inspiring reminder of the organization’s mission
• A vote on a “consent agenda”
• An opportunity for education or training of board members
• A generative conversation about a matter of consequence
Let’s look at these steps in more detail.
First, taking time to build community increases accountability. When people don’t know or care about the others in the group, they don’t feel bad about dropping the ball on their assignments. But people who feel emotionally connected to one another follow through on commitments because they don’t want to disappoint their friends. Here are some ways to build community:
Food. I think every board meeting should have food, partly as a gesture of reciprocity because the leaders are volunteering their time, and partly to ensure that people’s biological needs are met so they can pay attention. I also think something visceral happens when people break bread together. Some groups rotate the food assignment among board members; others assign food to staff.
Introductions. Begin your meetings with members restating their names (I’ve worked with boards where some people didn’t even know who some of their fellow members were!) and sharing a simple fact about themselves: their favorite movie, their favorite book, their favorite ethnic restaurant, a memorable trip destination, where they went to high school, or something more mission-related, such as their favorite musical memory from their childhood, the first concert they attended, their favorite instrument and why, or who fostered their love of music. This gives the others a little glimpse into each leader’s personal life without taking more than a few minutes out of the meeting.
Second, it’s important to remind people of the group’s core purpose at every meeting to keep their leadership inspired. Sometimes, we talk so much about what we do that we neglect to articulate what difference it’s making. And board members who are deeply engaged in the work of the organization can forget to tie that work to the larger mission and vision. In some organizations, I’ve seen staff share a story about someone who has benefited from their efforts, but I think it’s even more effective to have a board member responsible for the “mission moment.” Rotate who shares one of these moments each month (and be sure to make it easy for them to connect with a supporter or audience member if they don’t have a story of their own). By learning a story well enough to share it with their peers, they will allow it to sink into their hearts and guts, and they’ll remember it for a long time. You may even hear them repeat it in some other context later on. At the end of the year, board members will have heard enough stories that they’ll feel really connected to your impact.
Third, with a consent agenda, the staff puts into one document all of the reports and routine items that normally take up meeting time yet don’t require board discussion (for example, minutes, reports, and perfunctory ratifications). This document is sent out ahead of time with the expectation that everyone reads it before coming to the meeting. Then the board votes on all items at once, making the document the official record of the organization. A consent agenda eliminates from the discussion anything that already happened and allows the board to spend the meeting time looking forward and applying their wisdom to important matters.
Fourth, include 20 minutes of education or training so board members can anticipate learning something germane every time they attend a meeting. Knowing that the organization is investing in their ability to lead well will inspire them to use their newly acquired wisdom and skills. Here are a couple of points to remember:
Think about education in terms of your line of work. Have a staff member or local expert come in to talk about trends or best practices in the field. Invite board members who know a lot about something (audience development, touring, collaboration, or a successful organization they used to lead) to share their expertise. Choose topics that help board members understand how economic or demographic shifts in your community might be affecting your work. Education helps put your group in a larger context so the board can see how you fit into the broader community.
Think about training in terms of how to be a more effective board member. If some members don’t know how to read the financial statements, train them on where their eyes should fall on the page and which strategic questions they should be asking about the budget. If they don’t know how to work a room on your behalf or ask unapologetically for money or auction items, have someone show them how to do it. Invite members from other highly functional boards in town to come and share what they’ve learned from some of their innovations. We need to stop complaining about what leaders do badly and give them the tools to do it better.
Now imagine that those first four agenda items take 30 minutes total. That leaves you a good 60 minutes to engage in a deep, rich, satisfying conversation about something that matters, preferably something that relates to your strategic goals. Perhaps a task force went away after the strategic planning retreat to hammer out a recommendation on some topic. Give them a few minutes to outline their ideas and then open it up to the whole board to discuss.
You could plan your generative questions several months in advance, so people have time to do some research or thinking about them ahead of time. And be sure to structure the conversation so people can see how to participate. A colleague once said, “Never let them start from scratch.” If the topic is too broad or general, and they don’t know why they’re having the conversation, people flail. Set them up for a positive, inspiring experience.
Near the end of every meeting, ask each person to share one thing he or she got out of the meeting that made it worthwhile, and one thing each will joyfully commit to do that will bring the meeting’s conversations to life in the organization. Having people articulate key takeaways reinforces all the good things that happened. And reviewing each person’s commitments on the spot—and having them show up in the minutes—might ensure more follow-through.
Consider offering leaders an opportunity to evaluate each meeting at its conclusion, reflecting on whether they felt like their time was well-spent, whether everyone had a chance to participate fully, whether they felt prepared for the conversations, and whether the board is attending to the right things. A half-page form that they fill out and hand to the president each time will help people feel like they’re shaping future discussions so they’ll be productive and worthwhile.
Good board meetings help leaders feel as if the organization has invested in them, and they’ve invested in the organization. As meetings engage board members in rich, satisfying conversations about topics that further the mission, vision, and strategic goals, trustees can see how their efforts affect the organization. When board members are engaged in authentic leadership, they’ll be more powerful ambassadors and proud seekers of financial support. Try making YOUR board meetings more engaging. Everyone will thank you.
Susan Howlett has been a consultant to nonprofits throughout the United States for 25 years, after serving as a board member, development director, and executive director. This article is adapted from her book Boards on Fire! (http://susanhowlett.com/boards-on-fire/).