If you are experiencing low board engagement, even in a small subset of board members, it’s more often that board commitment is not a high enough priority for success.
There are a variety of steps you, as the executive director, can take to address the matter of making board member commitment the right priority for success. Of course, what specific steps to take depends on a number of cultural factors. This post does not attempt to address culture and the myriad contextual factors that may exist in a specific organization or situation. But there are some general approaches that have proven useful to me.
The Short Term Problem
Let’s consider a very common challenge faced by nearly all boards over time. That challenge is board member focus for meetings, be they board or critical committee meetings.
Most board or committee meetings are supported by carefully prepared agenda and supporting materials to be reviewed before the meeting occurs. As executive directors we work with the board chairman or president to prepare the agenda. Even if the agenda is a standard format, the agenda topics to be addressed have specific objectives to be accomplished in the meeting. These objectives range from reviewing standard reports where no action needs to be taken to a critical vote on a strategic matter of importance to the organization. Regardless the nature of the agenda topic, board members need to be sufficiently familiar with the materials to take the appropriate actions. Simply put – board members need to read and digest the briefing materials sent to them in advance.
In some cases it’s enough to have general familiarity with the material. In other cases, board members need to be deeply familiar with the issues. It’s often not sufficient to simply remember what was discussed about the topic at the last board meeting, which might have taken place months ago. What they recall from the last board meeting, while always useful, may be an outdated understanding of the issue, especially if it’s a dynamic matter.
Fast forward to the meeting. You can almost tell just by watching body language who read the briefing material and who did not. It’s almost too late to do anything about this breakdown during a meeting, except to be careful not to embarrass a board member in front of their peers. The most egregious example I’ve seen (true story) was a board member who walked into the meeting just as the meeting was being called to order; he was the last one to attend. He sat down, put the unopened shipping package containing the briefing materials in front of him, then opened the package on the spot. Didn’t he have 15 minutes between when he received the materials and the start of the meeting to at least familiarize himself with the content? In virtually every instance, of course he did. I’m sure his excuse was: “I was too busy and didn’t have the time.” No, that really can’t be it unless he was not in his office the preceding week. Or he had a hospital emergency, or some other extreme situation. Of course, those things happen. But it’s more likely that he didn’t assign the right priority to his board service to make sure he prepared himself to participate in the deliberative process that is the board’s role for their organization.
The above situation was an extreme case even for that board. Although, for that organization, even at a good board meeting, about half the board could have scored very well on a quiz about the contents of the briefing materials. The balance of that board would have scored about 50%, which can be enough to have a successful meeting based on content and outcomes for some meetings.
Here’s why “I didn’t have time…” is a poor excuse. If it takes the same amount to time to perform a task between when it was assigned and when it was completed, then it’s not a “time issue”. It’s a “priority issue.” If it takes less time to perform the task later than earlier, perhaps then it’s a time issue. But if the time to perform the task is the same regardless when it’s done, it’s definitely a priority issue.
To be clear. It’s perfectly fine if a board member’s priorities shift after they join a board. Most people have very busy family, business and professional lives. So, it’s not that priorities shift, it’s how one handles their commitments around shifting priorities that matter.
Steps To Support Board Service as a Priority
Apart from a comprehensive program to address board service priorities that actually begins before anyone joins the board, here are some simple steps that can raise your board’s game:
- Be consistent – use a standardized agenda for board meetings with sufficient flexibility to shift the balance at any given meeting between standard reports to extended reporting, discussion and deliberation for critical board decisions. Not a bad idea to provide the board with a few models of an agenda and get their input so it’s “their agenda”.
- Be timely – another element of consistency is to set the expectation that their board materials will arrive a set number of days before the meeting. If materials are sent as hard copies (yes, still happens with some boards), about a week before the materials are sent, send a message to the entire board letting them know the briefing materials are about to be sent. Let them know they should inform you if they wish their materials to be sent to a different location than their standard address. If the materials are sent as hard copies, send a message to the entire board confirming that they should receive their materials on such-and-such a date. This lets members know that they should contact you if their materials have not arrived in time so you can take action before the meetings.
- Reach out to individuals – while enclosing a short, handwritten note to the materials may draw a board member’s attention to something you know is of particular interest to them in the materials, that would not have worked in the example above. The materials have to be opened before sitting down at the board meeting to read a note.A better technique is to simply place a call to several board members after the materials have been sent to offer to address any questions they may have about a particular topic or set of materials, because you know such-and-such is important to them.You don’t have to call each board member in advance of each meeting. However, over the course of a year board members will learn that you might call them, so they are conditioned to pay attention to the materials that have been especially prepared to support their board service.
Stay tuned for a separate post on a comprehensive approach to setting expectations early and reinforcing them across the board (pun intended).