Board meetings – look who’s talking

As board chair you need to know that sitting at the head of the table and running the meeting are two different things. I observed a board once where the board chair called the meeting to order, sought approval of the minutes, and then pretty much became a spectator in the meeting until the executive director told him that it was time to seek a motion to adjourn. The executive director managed the agenda and led any discussions. Committee chairs deferred to the executive director as well, doing little more than indicating that the executive director, “knows much more about this than I do, so I’m asking her to deliver our committee’s report.”

Sure, the chief executive may have a better handle on many of the details, but that does not mean that he or she should be running the meeting, delivering committee reports, or doing most of the speaking. Remember that this is a board meeting and that you are the board chair. As such, you need to actively lead the meeting and make sure the rest of the board is engaged. If you want to see the board completely disengage, hand off your responsibilities to the chief executive and then sit back and watch.

If you’ve inherited a board that has fallen into this trap, it is not too late to change things around. You’ll need to begin by taking an active role in shaping the agenda in order to ensure that board members will take an active role in presenting information and have time for meaningful discussion. Talk to each committee chair about the importance of presenting the information or having some other member of their committee prepared to present. Staff can help prep board members to make reports, but they should not be reporting on their behalf.

The night before the meeting, pull out the agenda and do your homework. The agenda is your “script” for the meeting. Take time to write notes that will help you to introduce and transition between items and convey to others that this is not the first time you’ve seen the agenda. Remember, this is your meeting to lead.

Start the board meeting by reviewing what you hope will be accomplished during the meeting (this is easy if you have put your desired outcomes at the top of the agenda) and then quickly review the key elements of the agenda so that they know what to expect. You might use this as a time to highlight the “roles” that board members will be expected to play in reporting or presenting: “When we get to the finance report, Mary will be substituting for our treasurer, Justin, who is out of town this week.”

If you take these steps and still suspect that the proportion of time that the board is speaking is significantly less than that of the chief executive or staff, consider asking a board member to unobtrusively begin to keep a log of the time that people speak or present. Don’t make this too complex or exact, but see what things look like after a meeting or two. You might then have some discussion with the board, the executive committee, or your governance committee to see whether or not they think that is the right proportion. You can then develop strategies to get closer to where you, or they, think you should be.

For more information about this topic, or for other governance advice, we encourage you to contact Jeff Wahlstrom at (207) 992-4407 or [email protected].