Agenda Management: Raising Your Productivity Level for Board Meetings

Nicholas J Price
Productive board meetings contribute to the success of a corporation. Unfortunately, in many cases, board directors don't feel like their board meetings are as productive as they could be, but they can't put their finger on why they don't get as much accomplished as they wish. Strategic planning applies as much to planning and managing the agenda as it does to managing board duties.

Board meetings are necessary. Meeting facilitators and agenda creators should aim to create a productive agenda that keeps the board from being bored. With a little pre-planning and attention to time constraints, it's possible to manage meetings according to a well-organized agenda. Productive meetings leave board directors feeling like they contributed to the progress and success of the corporation, and that the meetings weren't just a waste of time.

A Productive Agenda Begins With Strategic Materials

The agenda gives board directors a glimpse of what the meeting will bring. By carefully selecting which materials to send, the meeting will naturally focus on the items with the highest priority. Discussions will follow the agenda items and the pre-meeting materials will support the priorities. Getting the right content ahead of time will keep the board moving with a forward-thinking mind-set.

While it's important to cover routine agenda items, the bulk of the meeting time should be spent on items that reflect the corporation's goals. Board directors will surely want to take a look back at past reports, but the main focus should be on how they will be able to fulfill long-range plans such as one- or 3-year goals.

Increasing Productivity When Sending Advance Materials

The person responsible for sending out the agenda should send it and any board or committee reports out in plenty of time for board directors to review them. In most cases, about seven days' lead time works best.

In addition to just sending out the materials, it helps to include a note reminding directors that they should spend adequate time reviewing the reports. Be clear that they should read them before the meeting and note any questions or discussion points that they want to bring to the meeting. Such reminders may nudge them to spend enough of their own time preparing for the meeting that they won't be flipping through reports and other materials during the meeting.

If they've read the reports prior to the meeting, board directors will only need to discuss the reports if there is a question or if there is a specific need to discuss them.

Encourage staff members to keep their audience in mind when preparing their reports. Keep reports succinct, giving board directors the information they need without being unnecessarily lengthy or wordy.

Board members who repeatedly show up for meetings unprepared make it difficult for their peers and may not be a good fit for the board.

Schedule the Right Amount of Time for Productivity

Most meeting planners know their boards pretty well. After several meetings, a meeting planner should have a pretty good idea how much time the board needs to conduct a full meeting. Most meetings run somewhere between three hours at the minimum and six hours at the maximum. The sweet spot is usually closer to about four hours.

Another way to help keep the meeting on track is to allow a certain number of minutes to discuss each item and to list the allotment directly on the agenda next to the item. If things start to get off track, it's easy enough to call attention to the time limit noted on the agenda.

Developing a Productive Agenda

Typically, two or more people, including the board chair, secretary and/or the executive director, work together on developing the agenda. Commonly, one person takes the lead and another provides feedback. Using the previous agenda as a starting point, it may be necessary to prioritize agenda items if there won't be enough time to address them all.

One of the most overlooked strategies in developing a board agenda is to frame each item as a question. When listing an item in terms of a broad topic, board members may not understand that they need to take an action or make a decision on it.

Many boards use a consent agenda that includes routine items such as approving minutes and accepting reports so that they can approve several items with one vote. Board members can request an item to be removed from the consent agenda for further discussion, if necessary.

Allocating Time Productively

If you think about a board's primary duties of strategic planning and risk assessment, it makes sense that those duties should dictate the bulk of a board's meeting time. The reality is that most boards spend far more time looking at what has already happened, as opposed to having discussions about how to achieve their goals and whether they're on track.

It's necessary for boards to take a short look back at what they've accomplished so they can compare it to where the corporation is and assess whether their current status will help them achieve their long-range goals. Many boards make the mistake of spending the bulk of their time reviewing reports when they should be allocating most of their time on governance matters, which includes strategic planning and fiduciary duties. A good rule of thumb is to spend about 25% of the board's time looking back and 75% of their time looking forward.

Electronic Board Solutions Increase Agenda Productivity

Boards that are committed to increasing their productivity will want to take a look at some electronic board solutions, like Diligent Minutes, an efficient software minute-taking program. Diligent Minutes, the newest addition to the Governance Cloud ecosystem of products, lets minute-takers pull Diligent board books right into the minute-taking software so that the board's work is integrated into one program. Diligent Minutes records the time the meeting started and pre-populates the list of attendees. Another great time-saver is that Diligent Minutes feeds agenda items right into the program. The software is flexible and customizable, allowing the user to edit section headings, drag-and-drop sections around and facilitate electronic voting. Diligent Minutes makes easy work of taking board minutes, so the board can focus the bulk of their time on strategic planning and managing risk.

Final Tips for Managing a Board's Agenda

It's not always possible to have time for all of the requested agenda items. If a board member makes a request for an agenda item and it's not possible to include it, the agenda preparer or board chair should let the board member know the reason. If the board meeting looks like it will run overtime, the board may need to table some of the items, so they can adjourn on time. Alternatively, they can formally agree to stay later.

A productive agenda will help a board chair keep the meeting moving ''' and help prevent one or more board directors from dominating the meeting.

Finally, board meetings will be more productive when everyone is comfortable. Take extra care to make sure the meeting space is quiet and comfortable and has all of the necessary equipment for a smooth and meaningful meeting. 
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Nicholas J. Price
Nicholas J. Price is a former Manager at Diligent. He has worked extensively in the governance space, particularly on the key governance technologies that can support leadership with the visibility, data and operating capabilities for more effective decision-making.