If you have led or supervised a group of employees, you know that building an effective team that works well together takes ongoing and consistent effort. The same is true for a board of directors. You certainly can’t assume that a group of board members, coming together four, six, or twelve times a year is going to become a real team unless you, as board chair, make it a priority to build one.
I will spend much more time writing about how you build your board team, and remind you again and again that it takes consistent work in order to do it successfully, but I don’t want to miss the opportunity now to suggest some ways in which you can use board meetings to help build the team. Some of these may seem pretty basic, but it is a rare board that does these things consistently:
• Use name cards and name tags – When I suggest this to boards the reply is almost always, “We don’t need to. Everyone here knows each other.” There are some small boards that haven’t added board members in years where this is true, but it is much more likely that more than one person around the table is struggling to remember someone’s name. If for no other reason, do this for the benefit of your new board members and for any guests (they won’t be the only ones who will really appreciate it!).
• Make it a regular practice to do a round of introductions – Of course, you want to do this when you add a new board member into the mix and whenever you are joined by guests, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to do it as a standard practice at every meeting. Do it at the beginning, and consider making it the exception not to do introductions.
• Provide opportunities for people to share – It is hard to get to know—really know—people by sitting next to them in a meeting. Too often we know each other’s name and, maybe, where we each work, but little more. Finding the balance between having time to get to know each other and running an efficient meeting is a real challenge. So, rather than adding “sharing” to the agenda (as some organizations do), let me suggest that as part of the introductions at the start of the meeting that you ask people to say their names and describe the highlight of the summer, their first paying job, what they were doing 10 years ago on this date, or something more imaginative. Choose one item that seems relevant and is likely to trigger a brief but interesting answer (if you are interested in learning the answer, others will be too). Set the tone by introducing yourself first and by keeping your own response to the question brief. You’ll be surprised by what you learn and how much people will enjoy doing this.
• Ensure that everyone participates – It can sometimes take a while for new board members, in particular, to start actively participating in meetings. This is particularly true if the rest of the members have gotten comfortable with each other, are familiar with the acronyms used, and share a common history. Make a point at the start of meetings to encourage new board members to ask questions and to seek clarification regarding acronyms and terms with which they are not familiar. Then look for opportunities to draw them (as well as the introverts on the board) into the conversation. Rather than put them on the spot, consider pausing in the midst of a discussion to say, “I want to check-in after this next comment with the board members who have not yet had a chance to speak to make sure we hear everyone’s thoughts on this.” Open the door in your board discussions, and see if they walk through.
• Put board bio’s in your board packets – Newer board members will especially appreciate being able to refer to short biographical profiles of their board colleagues. A paragraph about each board member, perhaps routinely included with each board meeting packet, can serve to remind board members what kind of experience and perspective each board member brings to the table. I currently serve on a board where each bio is accompanied by a photo of the board member, and this is invaluable too.
I don’t want to suggest that following this list of meeting tips will be the secret to building a successful board team. Ultimately, you are building a board culture where every member of the team is valued, where new members are welcomed and encouraged to engage, where participation matters, and where future leaders are being developed.
While what I’ve listed above might be easy to dismiss as “little things” that really aren’t necessary or amount to much, it is lots of little things, and the repetition of them, that will build a board culture that truly values and embraces the importance of working as a team. If your board is not engaged in these practices now during its meetings, as the new board chair, this is a perfect time to start.
For more board governance advice, contact Jeff Wahlstrom at (207) 992-4407 or [email protected]