The key to developing successful board meetings

As a new board chair, it would be a major mistake to assume that the chief executive will develop the board meeting agenda and that you’ll simply show-up at the meeting and follow the “script” or, worse, hand-off most of the duties to the chief executive. The board is YOUR team, this is YOUR meeting, and it is YOUR responsibility to make sure that the meeting is productive and well-managed. Don’t hand this off and hope for the best.

Successful board meetings start with a well crafted agenda, and the board chair should play an active role in shaping them. That is why I suggest that you set a meeting with the chief executive a few days in advance of the date on which your meeting materials are typically sent out to the board. My first board chair met with me once a month, about ten days in advance of the board meeting, so that we could develop the agenda together and so that I would have a scheduled opportunity to bring him up-to-date and talk about issues that I felt could benefit from his perspective and experience. That approach worked well for us, but it may or may not be a good fit for you and your chief executive.

I will talk about other agenda specifics and strategies in later blog articles, but I think that it is important to describe what I see as the key to developing an agenda for a successful meeting: start by describing the desired outcomes.

Decide what it is that is really important to accomplish, and then develop the agenda to make sure you get there. I suspect that sounds sensible to you, but the reality is that the agenda for most board meetings is developed by pulling out the agenda from the last meeting and updating it. Too often this means that you remain trapped in an agenda that made sense at one point in time but may not be ideal for shaping the work that has to be done now.

So, as you consider your agenda setting meeting with the chief executive, here are some recommended steps:

• In preparation for this meeting, tell the chief executive that you don’t want him or her to arrive with a draft agenda. Rather, “just come with a list of those things that you believe we need to accomplish at our next meeting.”

• As you and the chief executive sit-down to talk about the agenda, have a blank sheet of paper in front of you. Remember, you don’t want a draft agenda or, just as bad, a copy of the agenda from the last meeting.

• It is worth reminding yourselves that your board is filled with capable, talented, and committed individuals who, like you, are very busy. They are contributing their most valuable commodity—their time—and you cannot afford to waste it.

• Ask yourselves this question: “If we are going to have this busy group of people in our board room for a couple of hours, how can we make the most of this opportunity?” I doubt that your answer will be, “Let’s talk at them for an hour or so,” or “Let’s have them listen to a bunch of reports.”

• Write-down at the top of the paper what it is that you really need to accomplish at this meeting. You may end-up with a list of items, or maybe just one.

• Look at what you’ve written, and then see what you think will be a good use of the board’s time and what might be handled in some other way (ideally, outside the board meeting). Be rigorous about this, and you’ll find that you will make room on the agenda for the issues of real importance.

• If you can’t look at the list and sincerely say, “This will be a good use of our time together as a board,” consider not meeting this month. That may sound like a crazy recommendation, but either find something truly meaningful to do as a board or don’t meet. Your time and their time are too valuable to waste.

Once you’ve completed the steps above, write the words “desired outcomes” at the top of another piece of paper and list what it is that you’ve both agreed you want to accomplish by the end of the meeting. Now it is time to develop the specifics of the agenda and determine how best to structure things so that you can achieve your desired outcomes.

You may not need to sit down together and do this exercise before every board meeting, but you should insist that the desired outcomes be clearly described. It is then up to you to judge whether or not your board colleagues will be likely to consider this to be meaningful work and a good use of their valuable time. If you are rigorous about doing this for every board meeting (and for any other meetings where you have input into the agenda), I guarantee that you’ll start to hear people say, “Now that was a good meeting!”

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