What to do about board meetings?

Published on January 23, 2016

Michael Davidson

Board Coach
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Groups are most effective when the members all share an experience of being part of the ”In” group. Board dysfunction, such as board members seeking control or attention or, at the other extreme, disengaging, may be reactions to experiencing exclusion from an “In” group.

In a recent interview in the New York Times, David Rock, Director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, makes the point that effective group leadership creates an “In” group experience by encouraging the development of shared aspirations and goals.

Board meeting provide an opportunity to create the shared goals necessary to enable all board members to experience being part of an “In” group.

Meetings are also an opportunity to promote the creativity that many think is best encouraged by face-to-face conversation that promotes “creative serendipity” (what we of the pre-Silicon Valley generation used to call brain storming).

To the extent that we can clear routine matters from the board table, we can create opportunities for creative conversations to establish the shared goals and strengthen the “In” group experience.

Examples of fruitful topics for such conversations can be found in the “Eight Areas of Nonprofit Excellence” used for the New York Nonprofit Excellence Awards.

Imagine the creative polices and organizational work that could develop from board conversations around questions such as:

  1. How do we measure the social change we are seeking to achieve and what do we need to do to maximize those outcomes?
  2. How can the board maximize its ability to support the achievement of the mission objectives?
  3. In addition to prudence, how does our system of financial management support the achievement of our mission goals?
  4. Do the staff and board have the diversity and cultural competence to enable us to best meet the needs of the populations that are served?
  5. How can we best support and strengthen our human capital?
  6. Are we making the best use of available technology?
  7. Do we communicate effectively with our stakeholders and how do we use information from them?
  8. Does our resource development plan make effective use of the resources potentially available?

Interesting examples of board conversations that have led to significant social change were presented at the April meeting of the New York State Conference of Bar Leaders.

The board of the National Association of Women Lawyers decided to address the under-representation of women in leadership positions by adopting the specific objective of raising the proportion of women in legal leadership positions to 30% by 2015.

Through research, workshops and advocacy they have worked towards that objective in each leadership area, e.g. equity partners in law firms, tenured law school faculty, the judiciary, etc. Like all strategic initiatives, the exact goal may not be obtained but by setting a clear goal they have moved the needle.

In a similar vein, the board of the New York State Bar Association recognized that the objectives of “diversity” (the composition of the profession) and of “inclusion” (the distribution of leadership in the profession), while aligned, are
very different. Following this, they created separate committees to pursue each objective.

It’s not only lawyers who can have such creative board conversations.


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