3 tips for experiential board meetings

We look forward to board meetings like we do putting gas in the car. Getting together is obviously critical in order to run but you know you're going to bump into some questionable characters and afterwards have an intense desire to wash your hands.

Who would look forward to prepping for weeks in advance to entertain an bunch of well-meaning but ultimately bored and distracted know-it-alls? In the non-profit world, boards provide strategic guidance, raise funds, and make connections. In the for-profit world, it's pretty much the same-- except that a many are actually paid to be there.  So that helps, I guess.

Either way, the issue we face when preparing for and engaging our boards is an issue of disconnected judgement. The organization's mission is clear. The board's purpose is clear. Unfortunately though, they're together so infrequently and rarely ever during a normal day that both sides lack sufficient understanding to really help each other help the organization.

What to do?

Commit to at least one experiential portion during the annual or semi-annual meeting. These sessions should be...

Hippo  by Martin Pool

Hippo by Martin Pool

  • At least 1/2 a day (4 hours) with a bit of time at the end to talk casually about what they did or saw
  • Mimic normal day-to-day challenges to the greatest degree possible.  Obviously, most staff or patients or tourists or clients will behave differently when there is someone unfamiliar lurking about. Even so, get the board involved with whatever you develop and deliver at the most fundamental level.
  • Split board members up (so that they don't just talk to each other) and pair them with your most passionate staff.  Focus on pairing board members with sparky, interesting people who embody the mission. With this approach, you might not pick your highest performers or even someone doing everything by the book. However, the benefit is that the board member will be exposed to an impassioned person who will naturally seize that opportunity to reinforce why the work is so important. They'll also see the strengths, weaknesses, and risks up close.

3 "must do's" for your next advisory council meeting

Sprouts  by Louise van Terheijden Tilburg, Netherland

Sprouts by Louise van Terheijden Tilburg, Netherland

Before you click away to check out a more interesting topic-- such as the effectiveness of various types of dental floss-- just stick with me for a moment.

Do you have an external council or advisory committee whose raison d'etre is to review your program's progress, provide guidance, and make strategic recommendations? Uh, yeah. Me too.

In fact, just about every client I can think of has 1 (if not 14 active groups) hovering nearby who are "here to help!" And by "help" they mean ready to offer context-light suggestions and fancy footwork to avoid doing any actual work because they have other full-time jobs.

We do this advisory council thing to ourselves. It all sounds like a good idea in the beginning.  "Hey, we're kicking of our new strategic plan so we should probably create an independent group to help steer the ship."

There is a lot right about the concept.  Infusing an external perspective in any important new program is invaluable. If they're able to provide top cover too when things invariably go awry, then they're worth their weight in the coffee and light refreshments you have to provide to get them to show up in person at the meeting. The problems pop up about a month before the prescheduled quarterly meeting.

Usually, someone suddenly remembers that the council meeting is coming up and the program team immediately starts to get anxious. These external advisory councils are typically comprised of senior staff-- a gaggle of folks you clearly want to impress.  However, they're also intentionally disconnected from day-to-day program operations.  That's what gives them supposed objectivity.  Council members are also selected to represent a variety of organizational interests.  So in one meeting you and your program team has the delightful opportunity to piss off and disappoint not just one executive but a one from every division!

So, yes. Communicating with these folks can be tricky, distracting, time consuming, and even risky. To overcome these, you need to check yourself and your team against a list of "must do's" YOU need from the them and not just what they're expecting out of you.  Counter to our typical approach, the best communications strategy is to consider the council a resource-- not a validate-or.

  1. Review the year's action plan. Too far out and they'll lose interest.  Nobody cares and a few might be thinking they won't be around.  Don't waste any time on super, outyear vision-y stuff. Instead, ask them to add and delete actions to ensure alignment with broader organizational goals.  You might make a rule that this is a one for one swap.  Anything new can be added as long as something else drops off the list.  The objective isn't to overload but to hone the edges.
  2. Highlight hurdles-- which likely include money. Because they're advisory, you're not asking them for money but you're seeking advice on how to secure the resources you need. The tricky thing here is to be open to creative suggestions. Be prepared later to laugh over drinks with friends on the most ridiculous ones.
  3. Ask for advocacy.  Seriously, this is big and should be relatively easy for them to do. The question is-- when do you have an upcoming meeting or speaking opportunity that you can share some of the highlights on what we're doing, our accomplishments, and plans for the future. Be bold in soliciting their support and get them to make a commitment out loud-- if you can.

On top of these, if you keep the presentations relatively short and end early, you're sure to please.  Good luck!