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5 Tips for Having Gladiator Board Meetings

My dad is due for a colonoscopy, and he jokingly said he was going to schedule it during one of his Wednesday work meetings. “At least they give you anesthesia for the colonoscopy,” he said.

This is how most people feel about meetings, let alone BOARD meetings… which is a pity, because there’s a lot of unrealized potential. Vision setting, planning strategy, debating policy implications—a board meeting should be juicy. Instead, it’s bickering about the font size on the new brochures or, ugh, dissecting the cost of paper clips in the annual budget. Please, give me some of that nitro gas.

Wouldn’t you rather have visionary, glued-to-your-seat, gladiator boards meetings? What you need is more conflict. Yes, you heard me right.

In his book, Death by Meeting, Patrick Lencioni ponders why we’ll sit through a three-and-a-half hour movie (cough, cough, Lord of the Rings) but can’t bear a forty-five minute meeting. It’s because the movie has tension. When’s the last time your board had a throw-down, drag-out, debate? When’s the last time someone has disagreed with the executive director, the board chair, or the board member who has been in that position since the 1960s? When a vote did not end up unanimous? Great governance is born in conflict.

So, how do you build a colosseum around your board meeting? Here are a few ideas to spark the battle of the minds:

  1. Lead with controversial topics. Yes, you sometimes have to talk about budgets, brand development, and agency statistics. But try leading with hot-button issues like, “If we had to cut one fundraising event, what would it be?” or “How can we make this particular service better?”
  2. Use a consent agenda. Many boards do not have time for real discussion because they are spending so much time reviewing regular reports and approving routine decisions (i.e. last meeting minutes). A consent agenda can add valuable time back into your meeting without making the meeting longer. Here is a brief article from BoardStar to get you started on consent agendas.
  3. Hold the finance. Yes, discussing your agency’s finances is important, but boards really should only need to review the finances quarterly… if they are doing it right! There is a reason that most boards have a finance committee. Let them review the finances monthly, saving the board time. The finance committee can bring issues to the board in between quarterly finance reports when necessary. Now you really have time to get into something juicy!
  4. Break it up. When boards have an issue to discuss, Brent loves dividing board members into two groups and having each group defend opposite sides. Throw up a flip chart or create a table on the whiteboard. Write down the good points from each side. Talk about the weak arguments of each side. Compare the facts and then come to a decision.
  5. Role play. In my high school U.S. history class, my teacher would regularly have us role play different perspectives, just to show that there are multiple sides to history. Even for a no-brainer decision, try playing devil’s advocate as a board member. Other roles you could play include agency client, neighbor, staff member, grantmaker, mayor, etc. Maybe you’re all missing some good points because you all think alike!

Of course, there’s more to making your board meetings powerful than just conflict, but it’s a start down the right track. If you’re looking for more guidance, I highly recommend reading Death by Meeting. It’ll change the way you do board meetings forever. But for now, work on making your meetings more gladiator and less colonoscopy. You’ll love the results.

Are you wishing for an epidural right now? Let Dickerson, Bakker & Associates teach your board members to be verbal gladiators. Contact us today!

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