Keeping your board informed and engaged
The board’s ability to make sound decisions for the organization depends on your commitment to provide them detailed, clear information at the right time. It is worth spending some time to think about your plan for keeping the board informed and what communication tools you plan to use.
It’s good for a CEO to keep in mind that, while staff spend 100% of their time thinking about the work, a board chair often spends 5–10%, a committee chair is spending less than 3%, and a board director about 1% of their time. Regular communication and updates matter a great deal. For a board to make sound decisions, CEOs need to keep directors focused and on topic.
A good place to start is to establish consistent reporting structures. All your reports, such as finance, investment, or management, should be prepared in the same format for each meeting. This will help directors know where they will find specific information.
Ideally, the documents for your meetings should be sent in one package at the same time before each meeting. This means that your directors can depend on receiving everything they need in advance, and they don’t have to go searching for it at the last minute through various emails or mailings.
In addition, think about providing a systematic periodic update. You could, for example, send them a short e-newsletter or email every six weeks with a summary of the key activities of senior management and the key events of the organization. You could also call your directors on a rotating basis. Find a reason to call them that may involve a two-minute conversation, and see what they say. Let the director drive the length of the call. The two minutes may turn into a much longer chat. If they want to engage, stay on the call. You are essentially checking the pulse.
Between meetings, you should plan for more substantive one-on-one touch points a couple of times a year with each director, and more often for your officers. The time restriction of a board meeting and the group dynamics may inhibit particular directors from providing a more thorough perspective on an issue facing the organization. Working one-on-one provides you an opportunity to get a director’s help on a specific issue. You may also want to use these one-on-one meetings to share your initial thoughts on a strategic issue and gauge their reactions. At the very least, it will be a chance to brainstorm on a variety of topics.
Each director comes to the table with individual strengths and interest in your organization’s work. Figuring out what these are and putting them to use will often make the director feel highly appreciated and understood, and will ultimately strengthen your overall work. There are many non-management roles that can provide the directors with a stronger connection to the organization.
Board directors can also be successfully engaged by giving them specific roles at the organization’s events. For example, a director who is a particularly good public speaker could be asked to make welcoming remarks. Others could be asked to take care of special guests or greet donors. Equip them to serve as ambassadors by providing them with the background on the goals for the event and the guest list, indicating any individuals with whom it may be advantageous to connect.
Events that you are speaking at also provide opportunities to acknowledge their association and contribution to your work. Be sure to confirm in advance that they are comfortable with this type of public acknowledgement. Most people appreciate being recognized publicly, but you may have someone who is turned off by it. The purpose is to make them feel good about their involvement, so take the time to get to know them and do it properly.
You can periodically invite board directors to participate in meetings you are having with volunteers, staff, or donors. Involving them in a meeting with staff can be sensitive as there needs to be separation between management and board, but the board should have opportunities to get to know the staff, especially the senior managers. There may be opportunities to involve directors in a conversation with staff on a certain aspect of your work, especially if a director can provide an expert voice on an issue.
Although the board is ultimately responsible for the organization and for your role as the leader, it is you, as the CEO, who has to work hard at ensuring the board is as impactful as possible. You need this team to have the skill set, the interest, and the courage to do what is right for the organization. If you help the board work at its best, your organization will be on its way to successfully achieving the impact it aspires to.
Hear from Franca Gucciardi about the importance of talking one-on-one to your board members to share some of your initial thoughts on a strategic issue to gauge their reactions:
Talking to directors individually is particularly important before you introduce a new idea to the board. In my first year as CEO, I made this mistake. I developed an exciting (or at least what I thought was exciting) new idea and presented it at the board meeting. It was the first time most of them had heard about it, and it required the organization to make a major financial commitment. Not surprisingly, they turned it down. I was initially upset but quickly realized that it was my fault. I had not prepared them to make the decision or prepared the organization to adapt. They were right, and I would have figured it out if I had just talked to most of them about it beforehand. In the words of one of my wise directors, a successful non-profit CEO, “never surprise your board!”