The Best Board Meeting I Ever Attended

By Les Wallace, PhD

The executive in charge of board development for a large national philanthropic organization, with over a hundred regional boards, recently asked me, “What’s the best board meeting you ever attended?” Got me to thinking…no, it wasn’t chaired by me. Yes, it was one of my clients. Here’s what it looked like.

Consent Agenda:

The monthly meeting began with approval of the consent agenda—online and prior to the physical board meeting. This included the CEO report, and several updates from key staff members. Proper use of the consent agenda moves dialogue to the more vital issues rather than the common trivial data inherent in any board packet.

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Important to trivial:

The most important business and strategic issues were first on the formal agenda and the rest in descending order—no more “old business” “new business” stuff. Yes, it appears a bit radical and divergent from “Robert’s Rules.” However, those “rules” are ancient history to today’s high performance board of directors.

Dash Board Financials:

The financial report—the first business item on the agenda—was presented as a one-page dashboard (color coded green, yellow, red) of key financial indicators that the Board had developed a couple of years ago. This “at-a-glance” approach allows the board to scan the identified key indicators for monthly and year-to-date performance to budget as well as a past year comparison. The dashboard confirmed no exceptions to the monthly financials, was motioned for approval by the finance committee chair, and approved and documented in the minutes. The days of several pages of financials for board review are gone. The finance committee does the deep dive into the details as necessary and reports exceptions or recommendations for the entire board. No more distracting board members by why that postage cost jumped last month.

Attending to Board Succession:

A “Governance Leadership Succession” agenda item followed with a discussion of the cadre of potential future board members (10) the board had engaged. Conversation focused on the three that were top candidates for the upcoming two board openings in 9 months and how they fit the desired board make-up profile. While executive leadership succession has reached the radar screen for most boards, governance leadership succession still lags behind. I conducted a special educational session at their last board retreat on how to go about this due diligence and they are now tracking progress quarterly on early identification and development of next generation board members.

Reduced Trivial Jibber-Jabber:

Board members had read the board packet and their contributions were cogent and to the issue. No repeating what other board members had said—it had already been said. No drifting off into administrivia—they kept a hard focus on the matters at hand and a soft focus on dealing with one another. Through self-assessment and governance coaching they had learned to quiet the unnecessary trivial chatter and redundant comments that seeps into many less disciplined meetings. They saved space for meaningful dialogue later during the “strategic update” segment of the meeting which accounts for 50%-75% of meeting time in high performance governance.

Executive Summaries:

Staff and committee presentations/recommendations were in “executive summary” one page format—background information had been provided on the board section of the web site for those who wished more detailed information. This jump-started the board discussion on action verses the history of how we got there. The executive summaries included a highlight of key historical points and a couple of typical frequently asked questions relevant to governance decision making.
An executive summary approach to reports can be expected to cut substantial time off board deliberation by assuring you get to the point and don’t waste time on irrelevant curiosity about benign details.

75 percent Strategic Dialogue:

Thirty minutes into the agenda “business oversight” (fiduciary accountability) was completed and the board moved on to update a significant strategic issue. This allowed forty-five minutes of dialogue about the continued relevance of the strategy, updates on progress, new data points / information relative to the strategy, confirmation of continued importance and recommitment to tactics, timing, and resources. This conversation was “generative” in that it focused on creation of ideas and development of new perspectives on strategy. This is where the board had time for expansive dialogue (not simply discussion) and assured thorough understanding and creative input. Remember the time saved by the consent agenda (+/- ten minutes for most boards), the financial dashboard and exception reporting (+/- fifteen minutes saved for most boards) and those “executive summaries” causing conversation to jump-start in decision mode (saving another estimated fifteen minutes for this board)—that forty minutes came in handy reinvested in rigorous strategic dialogue. At this meeting the strategic dialogue totaled forty-five minutes and left the board feeling confident they were strategically changing to remain relevant and thinking in the future tense about their enterprise.

Board Development:

A short board development segment ended the meeting focused on the discussion of a governance article on the board’s role in enterprise risk management the board had read in advance. This fifteen minute segment of the agenda directly related to board development goals established during the annual strategic planning retreat based on their most recent annual governance self assessment. This board commits board development time to every agenda—sometimes separate as with this meeting or, frequently embedded in the “strategic review” segment of the agenda.

Pre-work:

Good meetings not only require a disciplined approach they require adequate preparation. The Board Chairperson, Vice-Chairperson and CEO, COO had met two weeks prior to the meeting to go over the proposed agenda and requisite background material the board might need. Ten calendar days prior to the meeting the “on-line” consent agenda vote occurred and the board also received their complete board packet [including links to their “board only” web site where more detailed reports and background information was available for the interested].

Immediate Assessment:

Finally, using an old concept from good meetings practices, each board member completed a quick evaluation survey of the meeting answering three open-ended questions: 1. Are you leaving the meeting confident in the overall performance of our organization? 2. Did you feel you had ample opportunity for input? 3. Would you change anything for future meetings?

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