Preparing for a Board Meeting
I recently had the pleasure of delivering a one-on-one ‘board readiness’ session to a first-time board member. As much as she loved learning about director’s duties, she found the practical aspects of ‘being’ a board member most valuable. The stuff that shortcuts the hard-to-learn lessons and leverages the experiences and habits of a 15-year board member.
A significant part of our session was around board meeting preparation. I’ve written previously on preparing for board meetings, but I wanted to do an updated version to incorporate some of the lessons that I’ve learned from my personal experience and from others.
The most important lesson that underpins and enables high performance and adequate meeting preparation is that it takes time.
A survey by Russell Reynolds Associates found that high performing board members spend 17x more time preparing for board meetings (per hour of board meeting). So, if you have a three-hour board meeting, they can spend up to 51 hours (or, 12hrs 45mins per week) across the month in preparation or in doing the work of a board member.
That may seem like a lot; however, when you consider some of that activities that fall into this time, you can see how being a great board member easily requires adequate time:
- Reading the board pack (and deeply re-reading necessary parts).
- Time for reflection and consideration.
- Focused requests to management.
- Independent research and outreach.
- Executing on your assigned action items.
- Continuing education, learning, and development.
- Watching for and analysing trends that may impact to organisation and/or its strategy.
- Staying up to date with emerging issues (e.g., cybersecurity) and necessary responses.
- Engaging with fellow board members and the Chair.
- Site visits and staff conversations.
- Stakeholder engagement.
- Attending organisation-related and industry events.1
What takes the most time?
From my experience, reading the board pack requires most of the consistent application of time and energy. And when I say reading, I mean reading. As in, reading to understand the content, not just consume it.
What I’ve learned about myself is that it takes me about 1 to 1.5 hours for every 100 pages of a board pack. This is because I am reading to understand and consider and reflect on what is being said (and not being said). Board packs often come as PDFs and, as I’m reading, I’m taking notes in the PDF document on areas that I want to know more about. In a dedicated notebook (colour-coded to match the corporate branding of the company) I’m noting down questions I want to ask and other thoughts that pop into my head that I want to follow up on.
You want to ensure your reading time is done with adequate time for reflection on the material and time to reach out to management or the Chair with questions you have about areas of concern or that need further information, so they have adequate time to prepare a response.
To make sure this preparation gets done, I schedule in my meeting preparation time around board meeting dates. As soon as I know the board meeting schedule for the year and schedule them into my calendar, I schedule in my preparation time as well. I also do this for committee meetings.
It’s worth noting that this can only happen if you have great meeting hygiene to begin with. For example, you set next year’s meeting dates well in advance (in October or November for the following year) and your board packs are routinely distributed one week ahead of the scheduled board meeting, ideally with a weekend in between distribution and board meeting to allow people to spend time on the weekend – should they wish – to prepare.
All that’s left for you to do is to execute on your plan.
There are other behaviours and habits that I have picked up over my many years on boards that I recommended in this ‘board readiness’ session. Although they may seem trivial, these will help you to improve your performance in the boardroom. It’s the small things, done consistently, that matter (like John Wooden and socks, it’s the relentless focus on the fundamentals of our craft).
Here are some of the fundamentals that I implement that enable me to be my best on meeting day.
Iterate better meeting behaviours and practices. I reflect on the previous meeting and consider what I can do differently or better for this meeting. I not only ponder my contribution, but the way I contributed. With our human tendency to focus on negatives, and because I have made so many mistakes and missteps through my board career, I must be careful that this reflection session doesn’t turn into a self-flagellation session. So I try to focus on the positives and consider what worked well so that I keep it in my repertoire.
Some common reflection areas for me include:
- What worked well that I need to ensure I continue? What did I do well?
- Did I prepare sufficiently? What did I not do that I know I should have done?
- Could I have said something differently to better convey what I meant or get a different outcome/response?
- Where could I have demonstrated excellence, but instead took the easy/lazy route?
- When challenging, was I respectful, focused on the issue, and helped get to a better outcome?
- Did I ask great questions rather than making statements or passing judgements?
- What questions could I have asked, but didn’t? Why didn’t I ask them?
- What can I do next meeting to make me feel more focused / like I can better contribute / like I added value?
- Did enabled me to keep my focus? What distracted me?
Identify my weaknesses and take action to avoid them becoming an issue. I have learned that I can get easily distracted, particularly when a discussion wanders off into an area that doesn’t seem entirely relevant to the bigger picture (This is exacerbated if a board tends to wander into territory that doesn’t need to be covered by the board; think, operational issues and historical issues that somehow persist being an issue.) Because I know during these lulls of a board meeting I can be attracted to checking my emails or popping into social media to see what’s happening – thinking I’m still paying attention to the board conversation – I ensure my iPad (where my board pack and notes are saved) is disconnected from wi-fi. That way, the temptation is removed and I can stay engaged. It also means I can help to bring the conversation back on track or push for real action or complete disposal on issues that keep being regurgitated.
Get in the right headspace. What the organisation is facing and considering in the board meeting requires us to bring a certain mindset and focus to the boardroom. I do my best to be conscious of what it is and identify the headspace or mindset that I need to get which enables me to contribute best at this meeting.
Depending on the situation, getting into the right headspace may require a massive pep talk to myself, particularly if I’m feeling uncertain or unclear of the value that I am bringing to the board (this is most notable when starting a new board role and/or being on a board with highly accomplished individuals). I can get in my own way more than anyone else, so this is a critical consideration for every meeting.
Plan what I’ll take, wear, and eat. I know myself well enough to know what I need to have with me, be wearing, and eat that will enable me to focus on the job to be done and feel my best. Because if I don’t feel my best and I’m distracted because I forgot my notebook or what’s for lunch, it’s not going to be a great meeting for me. Writing a list helps. Having habits helps. Wearing clothes that are comfortable to sit in for hours at a stretch helps. And having my own food and snacks helps. These are the foundations that everything else gets built on.
Be well rested and energised for the meeting. Another foundational element is sleep. As someone who has had a stroke and has the most energy in the morning, afternoon and evening board meetings can be challenging. It is vital that I have adequate sleep leading up to the board meeting day and that I do or not do things through the meeting day that I know will make me sub-optimal for the board meeting. Know what your sleep requirements are, and the activities influence your energy levels so that you can do what you need to do be fresh for your board meetings.
1 List modified from ‘Greater Expectations: strategies for effective board meeting preparation’ by Jonathan Kim and Marcel Bucsescu, 2018 Millstein Center Director Papers, Columbia Law School.
For more on preparing for board meetings, I recommend the following: