Friday, March 21, 2014

Agenda item: Purposeful board packets

Agenda item 11: Be purposeful in selecting materials that go into board meeting packets.

Are you helping or annoying your board members with the materials you include your meeting packets?

Meeting packets serve multiple purposes, the most obvious of which is providing members with baseline data and background information before deliberations begin. Well-informed board members are better prepared to govern effectively and thoughtfully. They need support - in a variety of forms - from the organization to meet those expectations. Meeting packets offer one ongoing, focused form of governance fuel.

In his phenomenal book, Boards at Work: How Corporate Boards Create Competitive Advantage, Ram Charan describes two types of information that board members need in advance of meetings:
  • Background information about substantive issues they will be discussing at the meeting
  • Procedural information needed for legal and administrative reasons
Much of the latter may qualify for inclusion on the consent agenda, freeing up time for the discussions that the former reference, if we give members the detail and context needed to understand without having to ask in a meeting.

Most of the "substantive issues" that boards deliberate require information from multiple perspectives and context for that information. Members need more than their gut instincts or random anecdotes offered on the fly before a vote is called. They need a solid, reliable information that helps them understand what is at stake, for whom, and why. Board packets can - and should - offer a layer of detail in that process.

Just as it is important to keep members informed, it is equally critical to not overload them with extraneous detail. Work to find the balance between "not enough information" and "too darn much." Look for summaries (or create them) that offer concise overviews of the key issues, concerns and options. Provide information in formats that are useful and user-friendly. If you're not sure what the optimal format looks like for your members, ask. Different boards, and board members, have different preferences for both form and content. Check periodically to see if what they are providing meets their needs.

Offer paths to additional information for those who want or need it; but provide everyone with balanced, accessible foundation that builds their knowledge about the topic at hand.  (One of the many reasons board portals are a good idea: the opportunity they provide to capture a wide range of information and make those sources accessible on demand.)

One last caveat about purposeful board packets: Deliver them in a timely manner. If we expect board members to come to meetings prepared to discuss critical issues thoughtfully, if we expect wise decisions that transform our communities and our vision of the future, we cannot dump a boatload of "stuff" on them at the last minute (a major pet peeve of mine). Whether mailed, emailed, or uploaded to a board portal, make sure that the information they need to govern gets into their hands at least a week in advance.

Yes, there inevitably will be the board member who's opening his/her packet at the meeting (though we can do our best to create a culture where coming to the meeting prepared is expected). But no one should be blind-sided or left scrambling to read a pile of papers in the moment because we couldn't be bothered to pull together materials until the day of the meeting. We set board members up for failure when we fail to provide them what they need to govern without time to read, reflect, and research before they initiate the discussions that lead to decisions.

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