Good governance demands that boards are engaged. An engaged board is a board that spends most of its time actively engaging in dialogue that explores big issues that really matter to the organization. High-performing boards engage in framing issues, asking (the right) questions, and considering options. They engage in critical and creative thinking as they explore issues.
Have you ever left a board meeting where it seems that majority of the board meeting was spent on listening to reports or presentations and conducting perfunctory business? Have you ever left a board meeting doubting that the meeting really added value to the organization? Or left concerned that some of the board members might be wondering why they even spent their valuable time going to the meeting?
If so, it is likely that your board is not actively engaged in a good governance sense.
Active engagement doesn’t “just happen.” If you want board members to actively and effectively engage in dialogue (around the right issues), you need to spend time designing a meeting/experience that encourages, welcomes and facilitates dialogue around the right issues.
If you are serious about increasing board member engagement, the first step is to evaluate the current level of board member engagement. Examine your last few board agendas and think back over the last year to calculate what portion of the board meetings were spent in true dialogue about big issues. Then, set a goal for where you want to be in a year or two’s time. In calculating where you want to be, keep in mind your Board’s culture and determine if the incremental change or revolutionary change makes more sense.
Once you determine where you want to be, develop a change management strategy to get there. Early on in the process, you will want to engage in dialogue with the chairperson and other key board members. Ultimately, it will be important to gain the support for the transition. In my experience, it is helpful to present the concept in a positive light; you are looking to enhance the performance of the board, rather than fix any problem.
As I mentioned in How to Create a Strategic Thinking Board, agenda design is key to increasing board engagement. However, in designing a highly engaged board meeting, you need to think beyond the agenda itself.
Rich dialogue is more apt to occur if there if there is a strong sense of “team” amongst the board members, and the board members feel comfortable working and contributing to the team effort. The challenge that most organizations face is that board members are only together three to four times a year, so there is little opportunity to build relationships. As such, a priority should be placed on including a social event in conjunction with each board meeting.
If you can inject a little bit of fun into the social event, so much the better. Again, be guided by the culture of your board or the culture you want to develop. Your social event could be a dinner or reception the night before the meeting. Or it could be an evening of bowling. As far as receptions, I have held them at the association office, on a boat, in a restaurant/hotel, and in a celebrity’s house. If you are going to hold a dinner, especially if you have a large board, try to precede it with a reception where the members can more freely mingle. If you do hold a dinner, especially if you have a large board, use rounds of no more than eight to facilitate conversation amongst everyone at the table.
Consideration must also be given to the type and quantity of information you provide the board prior to the meeting. In making the decision on what information to provide for the “big issue” discussion(s), ask yourself, will this information inspire robust dialogue or will it stifle creative thinking and critical thought? In considering what background information to provide, keep in mind that your goal is to get the board to engage in a divergent conversation, not a convergent one.
You will want to provide data and information that provides a 360-degree view, including opposing points or options for the board to consider. At all costs, you don’t want to provide one viewpoint or a recommendation. In deciding what information to provide, you want to protect against anchoring. Anchoring is when a board or board member locks onto an idea or piece of information upfront and uses that information as the basis for future judgments, which then stifles divergent thought. In my experience, less information is usually better than more. It is also important that the information you provide the board doesn’t inadvertently frame the issue before the meeting. Although it might be uncomfortable for some, ambiguity in the information can be a good thing. Of course, the issue or topic will also drive the selection of background material.
Selecting the right topic is key to raising the governance bar. You want to make sure that the topic is something that really matters and is of strategic import. Selection should not occur in a vacuum. Use your committees and the board itself to identify topics. Likewise, you can review your strategy and conduct environmental scans to identify big issues. In fact, a good way to begin your journey to a more engaged board might be to engage the board in a high-level discussion about what issues could be of strategic import. These issues could then be prioritized and fully explored at future meetings.
When it comes to the design of the meeting itself, it is important that the big issue discussions take place at the beginning of the meeting while the board members are still fresh. It is also important that you are explicit about the guidelines and objective(s) of the dialogue in which the board will partake.
First, the board needs to understand that the purpose of the dialogue is to engage in divergent thinking. It should be clear that the purpose is not to make a decision, rather, it is to creatively explore an issue from as many viewpoints as possible for the purpose of surfacing ideas, not decisions. This requires that individual members actively listen with an open mind to what is being said. People have a tendency to judge what is being said and be thinking about how they are going to respond to a comment; in active listening, no judgment is being made. Instead, the listener is trying to gain an understanding of what the speaker is saying.
Board members should also strive to ask questions, rather than make statements. What would have to happen for that to be true? What does that mean for us? Is there another way to look at that? What information would we have to know to make the best decision on this issue? Does this really advance our mission? Are we asking the right question(s)? What principles should we consider as we dialogue about this? Who does this issue impact? What would they think about the issue? What could be the unintended consequences? How could we frame this differently?
Above all, board members must actively challenge their individual assumptions and those of the group at large. They must also actively seek out opposing views and data that supports opposing views. This requires a willingness to look at issues from different perspectives and an openness to consider the different viewpoints as being right. Depending on the issue, you might consider periodically inviting non-board members, who bring a totally different perspective, to participate in big issue discussions.
Next, a decision needs to be made regarding the format of the discussion. I have found that breaking the board into small groups is very effective. In addition to visually sending a message that “we are doing something different,” breakouts help protect against groupthink and increase the probability that all of the board members actively engage in the dialogue. Depending on what you are trying to accomplish, you might assign all groups to the same issue or question to explore or provide each breakout group with a different issue or question. Either way, after the breakouts, the board returns and each group presents their findings. This is not the end of the dialogue, however.
Once the groups have reported back, the full board should be encouraged to challenge the findings and further dialogue on the issue. Again, the board should be encouraged to ask questions in favor of making statements and challenge the assumptions of the smaller group. One technique that I have used is to have the board think about how many ways the assumptions, concepts or conclusions of the small group could be wrong.
I would advise against using breakout sessions at all meetings. It is important that you vary dialogue methods from time to time to limit the probability of board fatigue with a particular practice. Again, ask yourself if a particular issue or set of issues is better explored in a large group or small group environment.
In summary, high-performance governance demands a high level of board member engagement. Achieving a high level of engagement requires intentionality and design thought. It is also only achieved if all of the board members engage, which, at times, requires a skilled chairperson, facilitator or discussion leader. Transitioning to this level of engagement may require the application of change management techniques and is often more effectively accomplished through incremental change. It also requires setting aside board procedural formalities and creating a retreat type environment.
Finally, it is important to monitor the implementation and success of your engagement effort(s). After each board meeting, survey the board to find out what they liked best and least about the methods used. In the beginning of your journey to a higher engaged board, you could also survey the board to get their ideas on how engagement could be increased and to determine their perception of the then current level of engagement.
About the Author
Robert Nelson, a Certified Association Executive (CAE), brings over a quarter-century of successful executive leadership experience, working with Boards and high-powered CEOs in a not-for-profit setting. He is the founder of Nelson Strategic Consulting and brings hands-on experience guiding and facilitating the design of strategy development processes and think tanks. His focus on organizational strategies and strategic solutions to complex organizational and global grand challenges for national as well as international organizations.
Contact Robert through his website, or learn more about Nelson Strategic Consulting at www.nscstrategies.com.