Preparing board members for strategic discussions

As you develop your board meeting agenda, take the time to consider each topic and ask, “What information, education, or explanation will board members need in order to fully participate in the discussion and make a decision?” Without a shared base of knowledge, board members are either forced to sit on the sidelines and not participate, or they must work hard to get up-to-speed, asking questions that slow your process and frustrate those who are familiar with the issue. When board members don’t have the information and knowledge they need regarding a topic, it is not unusual to suddenly find the meeting bogged down in questions and requests for information that can defer a decision to a future meeting.

Keep in mind that knowledge about any topic on your agenda will not be evenly distributed among your board members. New board members, those who missed the last meeting, or board members who don’t read their materials or pay close attention may find topics that you take for granted are quite perplexing. The same is true for issues that many of us consider to be highly technical. I am currently chairing a board that focuses on healthcare, and without some in-depth reading or a tutorial, I can quickly find that I’m lost (and must either ask a series of questions about things that seem pretty basic to others or sit back and watch).

So as you look at your meeting agenda, think about your newest board member, for example, and consider what he or she will need in order to be ready to fully participate. In some cases, sending out some reading material in advance might do the trick (though this works best on boards where there is an expectation that everyone is expected to do his or her homework and come prepared!). In other cases, you may want to incorporate an educational presentation into your meeting. These presentations can be done either during the meeting where the topic will be discussed or at the prior month’s meeting, and they provide your chief executive with a great opportunity to highlight a staff member by having him or her make the presentation.

On the board I referred to earlier, we have structured our meetings to have an optional educational session in advance of the board meeting. In our case, we do this over lunch, and we do our best to keep it informal. The presentations tend to be made by a staff member, a knowledgeable board member, or a volunteer. It is a great way to tap into the knowledge base of the organization and help those of us who can benefit from a “tutorial.” The timing of your meetings may make this sort of thing unfeasible, but think about whether or not you might do something similar.

If you ask board members, as we have, to talk about what makes for a good meeting, they will tell you that they really appreciate the opportunity to learn something new and have the opportunity to listen to, and participate in, discussions about what they’ve learned. Use this bit of knowledge to your advantage as you develop your meetings. Take the time to educate them. They will appreciate it, and you’ll find that it will result in much more interesting discussions, a lot fewer basic questions, and better decisions.

For more board governance advice, explore the Starboard Leadership Consulting web site:, or contact Jeff Wahlstrom at (207) 992-4407.