There is an old saying that we get what we deserve – or perhaps what we allow. As discussed in Part 2, you have little control over who gets elected, but a board can have control over how members conduct themselves. Sometimes there is a tendency, particularly with boards from smaller communities or those that have enjoyed long-term stability, to be somewhat casual with board processes such as chairing meetings, building agendas, and trustee communications. I have observed some board meetings that more closely resemble informal discussions, with minimal chairing, loose agendas and few formal motions. On the surface, this may work for some boards where everyone gets along and there are few contested issues. And some boards are uncomfortable with the formality of procedures such as Robert’s Rules and speaker lists to manage airtime. Apart from how this leaves a board more vulnerable to undesirable conduct by members who are less interested in getting along, it also projects an image that diminishes the importance of the board’s work in the eyes of the public and can leave senior staff unclear on board direction.
To be clear, meetings don’t need to be run like boot camp to be effective. They can be professional and comfortable at the same time. It starts with an inclusive and transparent process for agenda building and distribution. All trustees should have the ability to bring matters of concern to the board for discussion. But except for emergent issues, this needs to be done in advance so that everyone knows what is coming and senior staff, in particular, have an opportunity to have the appropriate information at hand to answer questions to guide the board’s decision-making. It also limits the ability of those who may wish to ambush other members or senior staff. The principle here is no surprises. But if there is little opportunity for input on the agenda or one that is only loosely followed, then meetings can turn into free-for-alls and provide an open platform for those who want to grandstand or undermine.
The second critical factor is good meeting chairing. This topic requires much more space than available here and perhaps will be the subject of a future article. Briefly, however, the Chair is like the conductor of the orchestra. She sets the tone and ensures order. There are two key attributes to good chairing: Having a working knowledge of the rules and processes of running a meeting (the science of chairing), and; having a style that is professional, equitable and comfortable in nature (the art of chairing). The Chair also leads by example. I have seen Chairs who misuse their role by dominating the discussion, editorialising after others have spoken, and running the board as though they own it. Although Chairs are normally the spokesperson for the board with the public and senior staff, they are there to serve the board, not to be its monarch.
To be fair, chairing meetings is challenging work. All the more reason to have a set of procedures, such as Robert’s Rules, upon which to rely. This doesn’t mean the Chair has to be a trained parliamentarian. The vast majority of meeting procedure are covered by just a handful of Robert’s Rules (or other standardised meeting rules) supported by your own board’s meeting policies. Meetings need to be run using a predictable set of procedures so that everyone knows and plays by the rules.
I am not suggesting that agenda setting, chairing and meeting rules be used to stifle debate or to muzzle dissent. The whole point of board work is to provide a forum for informed, inclusive debate to reach decisions that have considered all sides. It doesn’t t have to be, nor should it be, one extreme or the other. But if you and your fellow members are going home after board meetings feeling frustrated and unproductive then a good place to start looking for solutions is in your meeting processes.