Tips for meetings that focus on strategic issues

A recurring theme in my board governance workshops and in my writing is the value of ensuring that board meetings include discussion and consideration of strategic issues. As board members, we know we have to do a certain amount of what I call “monitoring,” but board service gets more interesting, and our potential for meaningful contribution grows, when we help the organization grapple with issues that are of strategic importance.

 Here are some suggestions on how to maximize these discussions with the board:

Be sure to allocate enough time for these discussions to happen. Board members will be frustrated if they aren’t given sufficient time to consider the issues, ask questions, and engage in a full discussion. You’ll find that even boards that typically move through an agenda in a highly efficient manner will need significantly more time for these kinds of discussions.

Where you place these items on the agenda matters. I believe that you should put the most important items at or near the top of the agenda so you can be sure they are completed and so you can give them more time if needed. You and the chief executive might agree in advance that if the discussion really gets going that the items that follow on the agenda might be deferred to the next meeting or handled without discussion.

Consider a one-item agenda. There is nothing preventing you from scrapping everything else on the agenda for one meeting to focus full attention on an item of particular importance. Much of what you think of as the normal business of the board can usually be deferred without doing any harm.

Make sure people are well-prepared to participate. If you do a good job of ensuring everyone has a common base of knowledge going into the discussion, you’ll find the board spending more time in discussion and less time asking questions or seeking explanations.

Employ proven strategies to “buy” time on the agenda. More and more boards are using the “consent agenda” process to dispose of routine matters and “dashboards” to cut down on time spent reporting.

Be clear about what you hope to accomplish by the end of the discussion. Not all board discussions must end with a specific decision or action, but communicate that in advance. It is ok, for example, occasionally to test ideas and seek reactions to opportunities (a new collaboration, the addition of a program, a potential real estate transaction, etc.), but make that clear up-front so board members aren’t frustrated at the end by the absence of a clear set of next steps.

The most important bit of advice, however, is what underlies this entire blog entry—ensure there is at least one item of strategic importance on every board agenda. If you can do this, you will see your meetings come to life and you’ll find yourself saying, “We really got something accomplished today!”

For additional information, please contact Jeff Wahlstrom at (207) 992-4407 or send him an e-mail message at [email protected].