Q: I’m on an online discussion forum where there has been a long-running request for agenda formats that would make board meetings more strategic. Most of the comments are of the “me too” variety – as in “yes, I want that too.” I really haven’t seen a good answer. I thought I’d ask you! Do you have a format you’d recommend?

 

A: As a matter of fact, I do. I have long advocated throwing out the traditional agenda that starts with minutes and reports, then goes through old business, and new. Think about it – the minutes, reports and much of old business deals with the past. As a colleague of mine used to remind me, it’s too late to screw up the past! Boards need to be dealing with the future. Besides, that is far more interesting and engaging for your directors.

A number of years ago many boards started adopting consent agendas, where items not requiring discussion are bundled together for a single up or down vote. The underlying concept was to shave off the often-significant time spent on routine items and allow more time for strategic discussions. Unfortunately, few organizations have manifested this time savings because consent agendas are rarely used correctly. Too many boards still ask for discussion on each item within the consent agenda before holding the single vote, or they include too few items on it. The consent portion of your agenda can be used for: attendance; minutes; correspondence; updates on goals or publicity requiring no action; committee, officer, executive director and compliance reports requiring no action; and, pro-forma recommendations. For a tip sheet on using consent agendas more effectively, click here.

But, there is so much more that you can do to make your meetings more strategic than just adopting a consent agenda – which, by the way, I would make the last item on your agenda so you have plenty of time to discuss the critical and forward-thinking issues before the board. The first is to print your mission, vision and values on the agenda and make sure that the board is always considering these in every discussion. If this isn’t happening organically, appoint a “mission-caller” to constantly ask the rest of the board, “How does this relate to our mission?” “Is this option going to get us closer to our vision?” “Is this decision in line with our values?”

Make your strategic initiatives the first item of business at each meeting. Schedule enough time to hold substantiveboard discussions and arrive at considered decisions where appropriate. The focus of these discussions should be on the goals to which the board has previously committed, or issues of a strategic nature that have come up that could impact the organization and/or its stakeholders in some way. If when sending out the agenda you include sufficient background material, your directors will be able to speak to the topics more intelligently. And, if you encourage them to think outside of that proverbial box, ask questions, and push back against the status quo, their interactions will end up being more strategic.

One technique that can help you concentrate on those things that must be discussed because of their potential for positively or negatively impacting the organization is the “BTW Talk.” Invite your board directors to share what they have heard in other contexts since the board last met (“By the way…”). For example, consider how valuable even an extra few day’s notice might be to a food bank that learns prior to the news hitting the papers that the community’s largest employer will be departing the state and leaving thousands without work. Everyone on the board has access to this sort of information at one time or another. Building time into the agenda to bring it to the fore and discuss it will keep your board focused on the strategic.

I would also include board education on every agenda. Depending on the content, you might allot just a couple minutes or quite a bit of time. But, its value can’t be over-stated. The more your directors know about your mission – including client stories, statistics, strides being made in your mission area, etc. – and your community – its changing demographics and trends – the better able they’ll be to make strategic decisions. And, the more skilled at governance they become as a result of what they learn in the boardroom, the more effective they’ll be at using their time.

Try building your agenda around these foci – each of which engages your directors in meaningful discussions and encourages them to share their intellectual capital. I guarantee all the seats around your board table soon will be full, with others vying to serve. And, your decisions will be better.

See a sample strategic agenda here.