In early December I reached out to several colleagues who are well versed in board governance work, board service and working with boards in different capacities, and I asked them to contribute their top three ideas to help me compile a list of best practices for board chairs to follow. Just so you know, very few of them provided only three ideas, saying that was too limiting for this important topic.
What follows is a compilation of those incredible ideas. I’ve listed the contributors and access to additional resources at the end of this blog to give credit where credit is due. On a personal note, I do want to thank everyone who shared their wisdom with us.
- Remember that it’s the board chair’s job to chair the meeting and to draw out the best thinking from the other directors. Your role is to facilitate a healthy discussion and debate, draw out everyone’s ideas and expertise, and then work with the group to reach a conclusion. In that role, you shouldn’t be pushing your agenda! And speak last, if at all.
- Use a speaker’s list by keeping a pad of paper with you to monitor who is raising their hands to speak. This will not only help to make discussion more orderly, but it will help you to keep track of who is participating and who is not. One of the chair’s major tasks is to ensure everyone has an opportunity to speak and be heard, and this helps monitor that. Call on directors who are relatively silent, by name, to encourage them to contribute to the discussion. Asking “are there any more comments” is not a very engaging technique. Build in ways to hear from diverse voices and ensure that those who don’t frequently share have the space and safety to do so.
- Assure you have good, relevant and current bylaws and a board member manual (policies) that clarify descriptions of board chair and other board member roles and responsibilities. Declare and adhere to processes like Robert’s Rules, or whatever has been decided are the decision guidelines for your board meetings (you can create your own meeting rules). Maybe not all items require a formal motion, seconder and vote as part of a board decision process.
- Utilize informative agendas, including a) the item being brought forward, b) the nature of the item, whether a decision or information-only, c) who is ‘motivating it’ or the board member who will lead the conversation and speak to it, and d) an estimate as to long how the board will spend on the issue. Make sure the agenda leads to action items, assigning folks responsibilities, and dates by which actions will be accomplished. Report back at each board meeting on these action items.
- Agendas should be created collaboratively with the board chair and ED. Consistent meeting dates and recording (minute taking) that captures the important parts without digressing into minutia of conversations is crucial. If an item isn’t on the agenda it’s not a part of this meeting – it will have to wait until the next meeting. Do not read or even summarize reports sent out in advance. Ask instead if there are questions or if more explanation is needed. Assume people have read the material sent before the meeting. This is a primary responsibility of each board member.
- Keep clearly in mind the governing and advisory role of board members in a governance board and consciously respect the boundaries that delegate the operational and programmatic leadership to the ED and staff. Be mindful of too much detail or getting mired in the weeds.
- Think about working with your fellow directors to create a code of conduct for in and out of meetings, that embodies the board members’ shared agreement regarding appropriate behaviour. If you go this route, get everyone to sign it.
- Be very intentional about the kind of board culture you wanted to create. This would include making sure you know what kind of a board you intend to be (and that everyone signed on for) – working board, admin board, policy board etc. It would also include things such as how you handle disagreements, how diligent you are about attending board meetings, committee work, what kinds of expectations you have of yourselves and others etc.
- Take 10 minutes at the end of every meeting to evaluate how members feel about the meeting. Give each person 30 seconds to reflect on one or two aspects of what felt good about the meeting, what didn’t feel good, what might be done differently the next time. Are you building community voices into the board? Do your board recruitment values and processes demonstrate intentionality to truly reflect the community you serve?
- A key to board culture is making sure that board members get to know each other and trust is built between board members, and amongst board members and staff (still maintaining clear lines of communication). Deepen board and staff relations by getting creative and include processes designed to accomplish this.
- Ensure that the organization’s mission, vision, and values are printed on every meeting agenda as a header or footer! Review at the outset of the meeting to ensure all board members are working from the same purpose.