Staff participation in board meetings

Every few months the phone will ring and someone will ask, “Do you have any advice regarding whether or not the staff, other than the executive director, should be at board meetings?” Sometimes it’s the board chair wondering, “Who are all these staff people at our meetings, and why are they here?” Other times it is the chief executive asking, “My board says they want to see more of the staff, but is it appropriate to have my staff attend?” 

I’ve seen both extremes, from an organization where every member of the nine member staff sat at the table during board meetings (often outnumbering the board), to others where the staff never participated in meetings. In my opinion, both of these extremes are, well, extreme, and neither seems to serve their organizations well. I think it is possible to find some reasonable middle-ground here.

My advice in this regard has remained consistent: bring in staff whenever you need their knowledge or skills or when you want to highlight their abilities. So if you are going to be discussing your new community outreach efforts, bring in the staff member who will be leading that effort. If you are going to be talking about the investment policy, bring in your finance director. If you are going to be discussing the personnel policy, bring in your director of human resources. You get the idea.

Staff members don’t need to stay throughout the entire meeting—leave that decision up to your chief executive. However, do use their attendance in the meeting as a reason to do a round of introductions—it is a nicety that will let staff members know their attendance is both special and appreciated.

For the reluctant chief executive, remind him or her that this is a real opportunity to help employees learn and grow. It is a chance for staff to demonstrate knowledge, work on presentation and public speaking skills, and gain confidence. It is also a chance to highlight staff members who are growing into leaders or who have really accomplished something on behalf of the organization.

The chief executive is sure to squirm a bit as a staff member labors through a presentation or struggles with answers to questions, but keep reminding him or her that the board still appreciates this opportunity to hear from staff and that you see this as part of the work of developing leadership skills in the organization’s employees.

There are many forces at play here, but as board chair don’t lose track of the importance of not wasting people’s time. If you’ve ever attended a board meeting and wished you could be back in the office getting some work done, imagine how it must feel to be a staff member sitting to the side and observing your board meetings. If for no other reason than improving productivity, consider limiting attendance by staff at board meetings to when they are really needed.

If you would like additional information about this topic or about other board governance matters, please contact Jeff Wahlstrom at [email protected]  or (207) 992-4407.