5 tips for managing your board
A great analogy I heard once is that as the chair of any meeting, you are the air traffic controller, not the pilot. Pilots are experts at flying planes - air traffic controllers provide direction and co-ordination for planes to get where they are going as easily and safely as possible. The ability to effectively manage board meetings is a key skill for any board director. It is important to ensure you optimise the time spent in discussions and the important topics are addressed.
When a group forms for any reason, people are going at different speeds and directions. As chair, it is not your job to be the expert in the material or to figure out how everyone should contribute. Your job is to establish a trusting environment so each person can do that for themselves.
Yes - board meetings can be challenging; ensuring everyone is heard, ensuring that opposing views do not escalate into unresolvable tension and that equitable solutions to challenges can be agreed. But with different personalities in a room, it is human nature to fall into patterns of behaviour that are not always helpful - some folk will shrink from disagreeing with people they respect, others like to be the loudest voice in the room. It is the chairperson's role to manage these tensions skillfully to achieve the outcomes the company requires of their board of directors.
Fortunately, there are some strategies that can help you make your board meetings more efficient and impactful. Here are five approaches you may find helpful:
1. Establish group norms. First and foremost a key role of the chair is to ensure that the board members discuss and establish ground rules for their work together. Sometimes the chair may provide these in advance either as a given or as a “straw man” for debate — or it can be an early task of the board to establish their own norms together.
These ground rules need to cover punctuality, respectfulness (e.g., determining who speaks next, how people are acknowledged or included and how conflict will be managed should it emerge), and setting limits on electronic devices that may distract from the meeting. The chair should make these rules clear at the start of each meeting and enforce them throughout the duration.
2. Secondly, as Chair it is vital to clearly define the goals and objectives of each meeting in consultation with the directors, so they are aware of the purpose and what a successful meeting would deliver. You should work with the board to create an agendas that outline the particular purpose for each meeting with a clear eye on the decisions that need to be made, giving enough time for discussion on each point as this will keep the board focused and ensure that important topics are fully discussed. It is also a good idea to work closely with the company secretary in preparing relevant documentation and associated materials in advance in a way that allows the information to be easily accessed prior to and during the meeting.
For those of you who want to go deeper on this topic I would strongly recommend researching the area of designing documentation in a way that allows for accessibility in both layout and language, has clearly defined parameters on relevance and is clear on purpose and the decision required. There are some wonderful methodologies out there, Information Mapping© being just one of these.
3. Assign ownership – When preparing an agenda item for discussion, consider assigning one member (or committee representative) to lead the discussion. This creates and acknowledges ownership and accountability, which can help keep everyone focused and motivated. Assigning an item requires research (data gathering, interpretation and interpolation) of information on the topic sourcing supporting company information/documentation and where possible preparing and seeking questions on notice.
4. Listen actively – It should go without saying but, approach the meeting with an open mind and a willingness to consider all perspectives. Active listening is key; this means focusing on what the speaker is saying, asking clarifying questions as necessary, and avoiding interruptions or distractions.It can be useful to take notes during the meeting to ensure you capture key points for discussion. Additionally, it's important to listen for nonverbal cues such as body language and tone of voice, as these can provide additional insight into the speaker's perspective.
5. Separate disagreement from conflict – In every discussion, disagreements are inevitable. Experienced chairs expect disagreement — and even welcome it — for an authentic conversation. Conflict can arise if disagreements are not managed respectfully. If this happens, revisiting the group norms is often helpful. It is also helpful to establish a group norm that disagreement is welcome for the purpose of understanding, but not for convincing. There is a great idiom in Australia I learnt from a cricket-mad mate play the ball, not the man (or woman!) Essentially, sticking to the argument being presented rather than attacking the speaker personally makes for far better outcomes.
To ensure successful board meetings, members should aim to establish respectful dialogue and take the time to build shared trust. Board meetings are essential for productive decision-making, so it is important to ensure that all members feel they can contribute. Dale Simpson, Director of Bravo, adds " A little humour works well, helping to see situations more objectively and contributing to a helicopter view".
By following the tips above board members can foster better relationships with one another, leading to better outcomes in their meetings. As a result, boards will be able to tackle obstacles and address the needs of the organisation more effectively.