Structuring Board Meeting Time to Increase Impact

Spring 2020

By Tom Owen and Stephanie Rogen

When are you most engaged in the work of being a board member? 

That’s one of the most important questions we ask trustees when we begin working with boards.The past three years have been marked by a notable uptick in requests for governance-centered work. In our consulting work, we’ve found that some schools need help navigating difficult conversations, decisions, crises, and conflicts within the community, or unanticipated high-stakes transitions. Other schools need recommendations for improved board structure and function. 
We ask board members to take a step back from the issues at hand to think about how they feel during those meaningful moments because—to borrow a tagline from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence—emotions matter. Just as we know that our students can’t engage in deep learning when they’re stressed, scared, or lacking a sense of purpose, we should also recognize that board members can’t do their best work unless they feel engaged and confident. Moreover, we know that board members are most engaged when they feel their efforts have significant benefits, value, and impact.
As board members reflect together on their most powerfully engaging and valuable experiences, they begin to identify and examine the conditions that lead to and sustain meaningful work. And as they dig deeper into what encourages their best experiences, they begin to question many of the most entrenched norms, structures, and practices of their boards. They recognize that the conventional ways in which schools approach governance may be outdated—and perhaps doing more harm than good.
Never has there been a more critical time for school boards to reposition themselves for higher-value governance work. We have recently observed school closures and mergers, leadership transitions, teaching shortages, cultural and political pressures, funding challenges, emerging post-secondary options, changing workplace needs, and new research on learning, student well-being, and educational practices. All of this raises the stakes and demands that schools evolve to meet the needs of learners in a new era. These uncharted waters typify what Ronald Heifetz and Donald Laurie famously describe as “adaptive challenges” in the January/February 1997 issue of Harvard Business Review, writing, “Adaptive work is required when our deeply held beliefs are challenged, when the values that made us successful become less relevant, and when legitimate yet competing perspectives emerge . . . Adaptive problems are often systemic problems with no ready answers.”
Despite the importance of tackling adaptive challenges, boards tend to spend most of their time wading through the standard checklist of things that are necessary but relatively easy to do, like going over the budget or talking about fundraising. However, the more time that is spent in this work, the less time board members will have to engage in the strategic work that will sustain the school in the years to come. The way that the board spends its time is perhaps the most crucial factor underlying successful governance. Given that time is a finite resource, the simple truth is that boards need to spend the majority of it talking about what matters. Boards aren’t at their best if they’re not regularly having deep, challenging, and future-focused conversations. And if they’re not having these conversations, board members are less likely to feel engaged and valued. Board member motivation and worthwhile work go hand in hand.

The Agenda

The first step is to build agendas that prioritize the right content. Many boards have adopted a consent agenda to move routine matters offline and prioritize more substantive and strategic topics for the in-person meeting. This is a good start, and in theory, consent agendas should make board meetings more efficient and effective, particularly if board members are diligent in their review of reports outside of meetings.
In practice, though, the more open format, if not supported by a thoughtfully crafted agenda, can lead to unbounded discussions that wander into inconsequential tangents and squander precious time dissecting low-value or inappropriate topics. When this happens, feel-good presentations and ordinary updates find their way back into the mix and once again crowd out deeper strategic work. Boards end up back where they started: trying to do too much with too little time.

What might it look like for boards to devote more time to nonroutine matters? Board chairs and heads can consider making these changes to the agenda:
Craft an agenda with a clear purpose. Limit topics and resist agenda overload. We suggest having no more than three or four agenda items per meeting. You might have, for instance, one item related to fiduciary responsibility, such as discussing and voting on next year’s tuition; one item related to strategy, such as some work on the current strategic plan; and one item that is more abstract and forward-looking, such as a generative exercise on mission and vision. The head and the board chair should work together to set the priorities for each meeting; this collaboration will also naturally lead to closer alignment between these two leaders.
Provide detailed guidance about what board members should anticipate or prepare before the meeting. In the board assessments that we conduct, trustees frequently complain that heads and board chairs tend to share too much information with too little time for them to read and reflect. While you can’t anticipate every agenda item two weeks ahead of time, do your best to prepare a thoughtful package well in advance of the meeting so that the trustees have time to review both the agenda and any necessary data. Rather than relying on email chains to share this information, consider using online tools such as a board portal or a shared folder. Make it clear if there are action steps involved beyond simply reviewing information; let board members know if they are expected to explore questions, examine options, or make decisions. It may also be helpful for the board chair to collect board member input before the meeting in order to guide the in-person dialogue (online tools such as Google Forms can be helpful for this purpose).
Use a timer to create a habit of staying focused and on topic. As board members become accustomed to time-bound conversations, which will be highly context-dependent, they will adapt their practices to ensure high-value outcomes.
Discuss what matters most first. We have often joined board meetings to find that the most important and strategic topic is last on the agenda. This is a big mistake. Invariably, time runs out and board members are tired and ready to transition. Make the most of time, energy, and alert minds by putting what matters most first. While there is no universal formula for determining the relative importance of different topics, the head and board chair must decide this before the meeting.
Ensure that at least half of the meeting time is protected for dialogue about questions of strategy and the support of leadership. Actively keep out updates or matters of operation that can be disseminated or addressed offline. Numerical updates from advancement and admission, such as annual fund results or application numbers, could be shared in written reports, freeing up meeting time that might otherwise be spent by someone reading from a slide deck. 

The Conversation

Getting the agenda right and remaining strict about time-bound conversations are all crucial initial steps, but this alone isn’t sufficient to guarantee great governance. You also need to ensure that, as a board, you’re having conversations with substantive value.
What is the best way to reorient boards away from circular debates and rubber-stamping reviews and toward exploratory dialogue and reasoned decision-making? Our philosophy is that dialogue, when it’s carried out effectively, is the single most powerful way to leverage the talent in the room and to uncover insights that truly transform your work as a board—and, in turn, transform your school.
It helps to distinguish between dialogue and discussion. We often conflate these two closely related terms, but ultimately, they are unique tools that are best suited to different governance needs. Dialogue is an exploratory mode of conversation, coming from the Greek dia (through) and legein (to speak), suggesting a convergence of ideas through conversation. Discussion, in contrast, might best be described as a decision-making mode of conversation. Its Latin roots dis- (apart) and quatere (to shake)—in other words, tearing something asunder—indicate a process of breaking an idea into its constituent parts and weighing them.
When boards engage in dialogue, they are actively making connections between different parts, sometimes in creative ways, in order to better understand the whole. Dialogue is about “sense-making,” a process of creating shared meaning. And as boards explore through their dialogue, they are also learning through a continuous cycle of inquiry and reflection. One important piece here is the process of examining more deeply the assumptions that the team holds. This is not a time for attacking assumptions; rather, board members should be highlighting these premises and trying to understand them better.
In contrast, the goal of a discussion is making a choice, such as: Do we act or not? If we act, what is the best course of action? While boards engaged in dialogue are concerned with seeing the whole among the parts, boards participating in discussion break down issues and identify the distinctions between the pieces. They analyze and debate the options, and they attack and defend assumptions in order to decide if they are properly justified. Boards also seek to gain agreement on a singular meaning or result through the process of discussion.
It’s tempting for boards to prioritize discussion over dialogue. Wanting to get right to the decision-making, board members will often skip over the exploratory work of dialogue. While their quest for efficiency may be well-intentioned, boards may later discover that what seemed to be a time-saving move may ultimately cost them more time if their decision was not sufficiently informed or fully considered relative to other options.
On the other hand, healthy dialogue reveals what information may be missing and surfaces new possibilities. The trick is to slow down, explore, and learn more so that you can then move quickly toward better decisions. Dialogue is the key to making this all possible. Unfortunately, most boards lack practical structures and strategies for facilitating productive dialogue and decision-making processes. Without concrete frameworks in place, boards often pursue tangents that lead them into areas that are either low value—conversations that aren’t deep, challenging, and future-focused—or out of the bounds of governance, such as specific curricular issues. Additionally, in these scenarios, the insights of quieter board members often tend to be overshadowed by others. Here are a few ways to practice and improve your dialogue:
Come prepared with open-ended questions. “For a good classroom teacher who knows how to engage students, it’s second nature to prepare for class by jotting down key questions,” says Charlie Gofen, former board chair at the Latin School of Chicago and current senior trustee. “But a typical trustee thinks more in terms of issues and topics to cover and less in terms of how to pose thoughtful, open-ended questions.” By formulating questions that spur an exploratory conversation rather than yes-or-no answers, board members can come to meetings ready to help advance learning, surface new insights, and inform decision-making.
Clearly state and actively uphold your norms for dialogue. Norms are agreements between board members about how they will engage in their work; they describe the mindsets and behaviors that create the best conditions for governance. Although norms are often informal and unwritten, without concrete articulations of group expectations, new board members might have a hard time acclimating to team dynamics. Furthermore, during moments of challenging debate, a lack of formal agreements about procedural matters can lead to unnecessary emotional turbulence, which in turn tends to overshadow the substance of the discussion.
If your board hasn’t established norms, we suggest that they are created, adopted, and continually reaffirmed (while recognizing that norms can change). When board members collectively embrace these procedural principles—ideally, reviewing them at every meeting—trustees feel empowered by a culture that supports and invites honest dialogue. Examples of norms to support dialogue might include: Make feedback helpful and constructive; challenge ideas rather than people; step in and step back when offering thoughtful and succinct input.
Appoint a facilitator. The facilitator upholds norms, helps others stay on topic, and enforces time limits. In order to fulfill this role, they remain neutral on content and remain on the periphery of the dialogue. While the facilitator role often falls to the chair, it can be equally effective to appoint another board member to this task. When the facilitator wants to contribute to the dialogue (usually as the conversation winds down), it’s important for them to clearly articulate this role shift.
Use protocols. For conversations where learning and exploration are essential to good decision-making, we recommend using a protocol structure. A protocol is a disciplined, timed process that breaks a conversation into four essential and distinctive parts: a presentation of the issue or dilemma, a questioning process that clarifies and probes for more information, an exploratory conversation to build on new questions and possibilities and synthesize feedback, and a concluding discussion to determine how to proceed. Protocols can feel awkward at first, but they train boards to move through both dialogue and discussion in a logical sequence that minimizes distractions, leverages collective intelligence, increases inclusivity, and drives convergence.
Use tools for inclusion. There are a number of strategies that boards can use to ensure that all voices are heard at board meetings, even if not everyone speaks out loud. Experiment with straw polls, silent written submissions, and around-the-room calls for input. Digital tools such as Poll Everywhere may facilitate these approaches; consider what would work best for your board. “Creating opportunities for meaningful trustee input—from new board members as well as the veterans at the table—serves to engage the trustees and make them feel that their contributions are valued,” Gofen says. “You get more and better ideas in the discussion, and you also get higher attendance at future meetings and greater engagement in a lot of other ways, ranging from participation in school activities to larger financial contributions. The converse is that when a trustee sits through a board meeting and then leaves thinking that it made absolutely no difference whether they were there, they tend to disengage, and you eventually lose them entirely.”

The Outcome

Boards that prioritize deep, challenging, and strategic work increase their effectiveness and keep members feeling involved and fulfilled. Educators may recognize that it’s not so different from what happens in a great classroom—a considerable body of research demonstrates that student engagement is one of the most important predictors of student learning. And just as teachers who design learning experiences that spark motivation and purpose are much more likely to see higher levels of student growth, boards that find ways to create space for meaningful work build the conditions for improved performance.
Tom Owen

Tom Owen is the director of thought leadership at Greenwich Leadership Partners and an English teacher at Episcopal High School (VA).

Stephanie Rogen

Stephanie Rogen is the principal and founder of Greenwich Leadership Partners and a consultant, coach, and facilitator to educational and nonprofit leadership. Her work integrates more than 25 years of experience in the corporate, educational, and nonprofit sectors.