Making Time an Ally of the Board

The end of the year is usually packed with meetings and deadlines focused on winding up business in anticipation of the new year. This is especially true for Boards of Directors with regulatory compliance requirements to satisfy, constituents to provide year-end reports to, and plans for the new year to be finalized. Everyone juggles their calendar, trying to fit everything in and use the time they do have efficiently. This provides a great opportunity to use board members’ time creatively, building collaboration and lowering frustration at the same time.

Time is a resource that can be managed, just like gas, electricity, and water. Once it is gone, it’s gone, making how it is used an important consideration and an often overlooked opportunity to make board meetings more productive and enjoyable. Here are seven not-so-obvious ways to improve board meetings — or any business or ministry meeting — in the new year.

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Avoid Chasing Rabbits

This expression came into vogue long before most of us can remember. It is a word picture describing doing something totally irrelevant or being distracted from what you intend to do. In a meeting it can take the form of side conversations, editorializing on something personally important but not really germane to the subject at hand, or superfluous commentary. Presentations, questions for clarification, discussion and even debate are all part of effective meetings. When we chase rabbits, time gets wasted and, in effect, disrespects the time investment of other participants. Set expectations at the outset of the meeting regarding use of time. Include guidelines to this effect in board training. Good facilitation skills are required to gently but firmly redirect discussion when the board digresses into unessential conversation. Be willing to speak privately to those who may not get the message and continue to use valuable time to vent, argue, distract or otherwise turn the meeting into a personal platform.

Encourage and Require Members to Come Prepared

Sending out information ahead of time about what will be discussed is crucial to streamlining conversations. It cuts down on time spent reviewing information that should already be internalized and allows members to get right to the crux of the matter. This may occasionally mean assigning homework. No one likes having to prepare outside of a meeting, but the time saved maximizes the effectiveness of the meeting itself and shortens the amount of time needed to discuss it in person. Spending time reading a few documents on one’s own time is far preferable to having hours-long meetings or even additional separate ones to get everyone up to speed.

Consider Meeting no More than Once Quarterly

The structure and purpose of the board may not allow this in every case; some boards are more operational and oriented toward management than others. However, in general, if a board is regularly meeting more than once per quarter, aside from specially called meetings, it may be too operationally involved. Consider the nature of the work the board is designed to accomplish, then decide the number of meetings reasonably required to complete this work while keeping the number of meetings in a year to a minimum. Many talented and gifted people serve on multiple boards. It is easy to imagine, even on a quarterly basis, how quickly the number of meetings would add up. Once per quarter strikes a healthy balance between respecting members’ time and gathering frequently enough to be effective. Larger boards often even extend meetings over two or three days to include opportunities for building relational capital, board training, and critical board presentations in addition to the regular agenda.

Start and End on Time

When meetings do not start on time, it creates frustration for those who came prepared and on time, especially if travel was involved in getting to the meeting. Running long because of last minute additions to the agenda, bringing those unprepared up to speed, and chasing rabbits just adds to the frustration, and tempts people to leave before the meeting is over due to other commitments. It sets the whole team up for less-than-ideal decision making when fruitful discussion is cut short, key participants have to leave, and agenda items are deferred to the next meeting.

Streamline Communication Outside of Meetings

Evaluate who needs to be included on e-mails before copying the entire board on the message. It may be more effective to simply update the others at the next meeting. If possible, save group weigh-ins for in-person meetings rather than complicated e-mail threads. Sometimes it is more effective with individuals or small groups to communicate by phone when needed. This provides an opportunity to determine if reporting out of the group to the board is necessary; and if it is, what are the guidelines and time constraints that need to be observed.

Evaluate Committee Structure

Ensure that roles are not being duplicated unnecessarily or causing confusion within the group. Board members should know and understand how their roles contribute to the purpose of the board and mesh with other poistions on the board. This also minimizes opportunities for misunderstandings, redundancy of efforts, and potential disagreements and tension. It provides a level of perspective for individuals that enables them to discern which discussions they should contribute to and which discussions are tertiary to their role, requiring less participation.

Show Appreciation

Thank your board members for their involvement during and in between scheduled meetings. Consider a tangible acknowledgement of their service. This could be a personal letter, an appropriate memento, or gift. Some boards add a day or two of board development or a personal retreat to a scheduled meeting held in a desirable location, often inviting spouses to come along as well. Make sure you treat everyone the same when it comes to recognition. Knowing their time is not taken for granted and their input is valuable also motivates members to stay on and keep contributing.

These guidelines can be enacted successfully with any board, no matter how large or small. All board members put time, money and intellectual capital into the organizations and companies they serve, and these sacrifices deserve to be acknowledged. Maximizing the time they give will motivate members toward active involvement, helping create an engaged and productive board.