“Oh No! Not Another Meeting”
By Mitch Dorger, EMBA
Senior Consultant, Win-Win Workplace Solutions
If the title of this article is how you and your board members feel about meetings, then let’s face it: Things are not being done well in your organization. Because the authority of a board is a collective one, boards have to have meetings. And in these meetings, board members need to interact effectively with one another in order to make things happen for the organization. Unfortunately, I find that board meetings are often one of the biggest sore points for board members. Why is this?
Among the biggest reasons for poor board meetings are:
- Poor attendance by board members.
- Lack of interest and engagement.
- Inappropriate human relations in the meeting.
- Lack of preparation.
- Breaches of confidentiality.
- Poor meeting control and management.
- Wasted time.
- Parliamentary foolishness.
- Agonizing length.
- Unimportant topics.
If any of these, or other, problems plague your board meetings, I recommend the following model for thinking about future board meetings. For simplicity, I call it the “PME” system.
In the PME system, “P” stands for Plan.
All board meetings should be well planned. This seems rather obvious, but what does it actually entail?
Attendance. The first step in planning any meeting is determining the right people to be in the room. For a board meeting, this obviously includes all board members as well as the supporting staff necessary to properly inform the board or execute their decisions. To the extent possible, meetings should be planned well in advance. Scheduling in advance significantly increases the prospect that board members can adjust their other commitments to enable their attendance.
You may also want to consider having a board attendance policy that makes it clear to board members the importance of meetings and their attendance. The repeated failure of a member to attend meetings may warrant his or her removal from the board. Repeated absence on the part of several board members is indicative of much larger issues than just meeting management, and a thorough evaluation of the underlying cause or causes should be undertaken.
Time. The planned time for each meeting should be thought about in advance. This requires an understanding of the goal(s) of the meeting and the complexity of the topics. As a general practice, I like to use a 90-minute rule. My own personal experience is that you can hold people’s attention for about an hour and a half to two hours. After that, minds seem to numb a bit; and restlessness begins to develop. That is not to say that under unusual circumstances meetings cannot be scheduled or allowed to run longer; I just find that group interactions are not as crisp and effective after a meeting has been going on too long. If a meeting is going to run beyond 90 minutes, plan breaks in the schedule, to allow the members to refresh their minds.
Topics. Effective planning involves the proper selection of topics. This task should not be left to staff assistants; it is something the board chair and the chief executive need to work on together. The board needs to address the right topics at the right time. An annual board work-plan helps in this regard. The board should know what it plans to accomplish during the year and then periodically check to see that appropriate milestones are getting on the agenda.
But agenda-setting should not be just rote. The board chair and chief executive need to make sure that critical emerging issues for the organization are also getting in front of the board. This requires thought and reflection on the part of those assembling the agenda.
Another step in selecting the right agenda topics is polling the board members to ensure that their particular issues are receiving appropriate attention. Don’t let them feel disenfranchised by excluding their concerns.
If there are too many issues on the table — as may well be the case — there needs to be a screening of topics. The board chair and chief executive should work together to make sure that the list of agenda topics includes the most crucial issues for the board to address. Try not to let minor issues or issues not related to governance (read, operational issues) intrude on the precious time of the board.
Information. The final element of planning is assembling, in advance, the information that the board members need to make informed and rational decisions. All too often a board will consider a “pop-up” topic and then proceed to pool their ignorance on the matter before reaching a decision that may or may not be a good one. The effective board demands and receives the information it needs to intelligently consider the issues surrounding any upcoming decision. Pop-up issues may still arise, but more often than not they can be avoided by good planning and preparation. As a matter of policy, board chairs should try to refer any pop-up matters to staff or a board committee for further consideration outside of the meeting, rather than trying to decide a matter with insufficient background.
The “M” in my PME model stands for Manage.
A meeting needs to be managed and controlled by its convener, whether a board chair or a subcommittee chair. What does this entail?
Rules. The first step in meeting-management is to agree upon the rules of the meeting. This could be considered part of the planning phase; regardless, rules must be in place in order for the meeting to be effectively managed. Included in consideration of the rules should be:
- Parliamentary procedures. These are fundamental for meetings, formally setting forth how ideas will be proposed and what sort of voting, or other decision-making system, will be used.
- Rules for individual courtesies. This is very important! Nothing can undermine the effectiveness of group decision-making faster than inappropriate human conduct. This might include personal insults, not sharing the floor, or excessively emotional behavior. I have seen this happen in board meetings, and it is not pretty. The adverse effect of rude or discourteous activity on the part of individual board members can stifle the consideration and evaluation of alternative views and undermine the effectiveness of group decision-making. It is poor board management to allow discourteous and disruptive behavior in meetings.
- Rules of confidentiality. Again, maintaining the confidentiality of individual discussion points and views is critical to promoting effective dialogue among board members. I have seen the effectiveness of a board completely undermined by the lack of confidentiality in the board room. What makes boards effective is the candid exchange and discussion of ideas and the tolerance of dissenting opinions. If sensitive material is leaked, board members will be very reluctant to bring up alternative or controversial views; and this will undermine the process as surely as rude behavior will.
- Enforcement of the rules. Once the group understands the rules, it is up to the board chair to make certain that the rules are followed, courtesies are observed, and confidentiality is maintained. This may require some sort of adverse action against offenders in order to maintain future confidentiality or orderliness. The board chair needs to be courageous and willing to confront disruptive and inappropriate behavior. This is part of the chair’s job; and this requirement must be understood, upfront, by anyone aspiring to wear the board chair mantle.
Managing a meeting is something that takes tact, courage, and attention. Here are some of the concerns that board chairs or other group leaders should have as they move their meetings forward:
TIME AND ISSUES
- Keep an eye on the clock. Don’t stifle discussion on a topic, but be mindful of the clock. Try to maximize the effectiveness of the time the group has.
- Try not to use meeting time to deal with routine items, which do not require group discussion. I recommend the use of a consent agenda for routine, non-controversial items. More and more consultants are now recommending this as a way to maximize the effectiveness of meeting time.
- Avoid “piling on” during discussions. Nothing wastes more time in a meeting than people taking time to agree with each other. I have been in sessions where there was unanimous agreement on a topic, but everyone had to have a say. If you have a board of 15 members and each person says the same thing, but in their own words, you can waste 30 minutes and really accomplish nothing. If the sense of the group is clearly moving in one direction, the chair should recapture the floor and see if there are any differing arguments. If there are none, bring the matter to vote. But if there are differing views, then additional discussion is required until there are no new ideas. When the ideas seem to be repeating themselves, ask if the group is ready for a vote on the matter.
- Avoid wandering off topic. This is very hard because sometimes the deviation from the original issue is very subtle. But without the discipline of keeping the group focused on the real issue at hand, it is easy to get off the topic and waste precious time. This control should be done delicately, because whoever started the migration from the main issue probably felt his or her thoughts were important and relevant. If this is the case, the return to central issue needs to be handled without appearing to denigrate anyone’s ideas.
- Get everyone involved. Any group is likely to have assertive people as well as less assertive people. But everyone’s ideas are important. Don’t allow only the outgoing and outspoken to drive the actions of the organization. Try to draw everyone into the discussion.
- Encourage differing views. I remember in graduate school I learned that the legendary CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch, used to demand dissenting opinion from his staff and board in order to get a range of ideas out on the table. The best group decision-making is made when differing views are expressed and ideas get fully explored before reaching a final decision.
- Demand toleration of dissenting views. I have watched people get verbally harpooned for having a differing view. It was not pretty. And not only did it destroy candor for the rest of the meeting, it destroyed it for the rest of the year. This sort of behavior cannot be tolerated. All members of the board (or group) must understand that it is only through the presentation and consideration of differing views that the best decisions get made.
- Be considerate of human needs. People enjoy meetings a lot more when they are comfortable and they are having fun. Humor and food/drink (non-alcoholic of course) go a long way toward making the people comfortable and relaxed. If people are tense or uncomfortable, it can put an edge on the dealings of the group. Obviously, accommodations need to be made for restroom breaks; although try to ensure that they do not stretch beyond the planned time frame. It is normally better to allow these breaks as a group than to have individuals leave one at a time during the meeting. The problem in the latter case is that the departing individual does not have the benefit of the discussion that occurs when they are absent from the room.
Finally, the “E” in my PME model stands for both Evaluation and Execution.
Many consultants recommend saving the last few minutes of every meeting to evaluate the conduct of the meeting. If people are candid and the group is a “learning group,” such end-of-meeting reviews can be useful. I have seen such evaluations prove highly effective, but I have seen them prove useless if the critiques are subsequently ignored or if the comments are not candid about the shortfalls in the management the meeting.
Perhaps the most important letter in this whole article is the “E” for execution. No matter how wise a decision is made by the board, if it is not executed it serves no useful purpose at all. In most organizations, it is not the board’s responsibility to implement its own decisions. Typically, this responsibility belongs to the staff or, perhaps, a committee of volunteers. The decision needs to get out of the board room and into the hands of those who will carry it out. This is not as easy as it sounds. I have seen innumerable cases where a decision of the board never reaches the intended action-agent; or if it gets there at all, the decision gets garbled along the way to the point that the implementer doesn’t really know what he or she is supposed to do. Don’t let this happen.
Establish procedures as to who is responsible for conveying the message and how it will be conveyed. This is often a task assigned to the chief executive. Regardless, make sure everyone on the board knows whose task it is. I have seen cases in which multiple sources have conveyed the message to the implementer, each source with their own unique bias or viewpoint as to exactly what the board had decided. This can frustrate the implementer and readily result in the board’s actual intent going unfulfilled. So specify in advance who will deliver the message and how, and then hold them accountable for conveying and executing the decision.
In summary, remember that the board is responsible for the strategic direction and proper oversight of the organization. But this work is not done by individuals; it is done by the group as a whole. And the vehicle for making the work of the board happen is the meeting. It is not an overstatement to say that the effectiveness of a board is directly proportional to the effectiveness of its meetings. If board meetings are effective, that forms a good basis for subsequent board success. But if the meetings are ineffective, it is likely that the board’s ability to contribute to the organization’s success will be undermined. It is only by understanding the importance of meetings — and taking the time to make them effective — that boards can reach their full potential in governing the organization.