Long term strategic thinking and mutual respect are keys to great board meetings: Part 2

Respectful discussion of truly important issues helps make meetings great, and goes further than simple fixes like starting on time or using a consent agenda.

Great meetings are clearly a component of extraordinary governance. In part one of this series on great meetings, we talked about some of the easier changes a board can make to improve meetings, such as starting and ending on time, clear agendas and staying on task. The writers I studied as I prepared the Components of Extraordinary Governance echoed some of these same ideas, and added a few more that we often don’t think about, but that are also extremely important to really great meetings.

These additional ideas fall into two categories. The first is the need for adequate time to address strategic issues, to think long term. Boards that get stuck in hearing and approving reports and expenditures often feel like they are spinning their wheels, never really accomplishing anything. The use of consent agendas can reduce the amount of time spent on reports. Some tasks can be delegated to staff.

More important than offloading some tasks, however, is what the board does with that time instead. Setting aside significant amounts of board time for long term strategic thinking is critically important to every organization or government board. If a board does not take time for this kind of thought, it often does not get done. The future direction and success of the organization depends on this strategic thinking. Adequate time must be taken to thoroughly consider the pros and cons of all ideas under consideration, and to reach consensus on the most important investments of time and resources for the organization.

“Boardsource” speaks of a “culture of inquiry.” Key elements include exploring unique areas of expertise, and careful consideration of differences of opinion, which act to energize a board’s collective wisdom.

Trust, as we talked about in this previous article, and developing a sense of mutual respect, are also very important to achieving this level of deep, insightful conversation during board meetings. Developing goals that motivate successful achievement of the mission and reduce the likelihood of unintended consequences require this type of energetic, in-depth work by the board of any organization.

Mutual respect doesn’t require that I agree with everything you say. It does require that I listen carefully, and give value to your thoughts, experiences, intelligence, and opinions. Mutual respect also requires that I focus my challenges on the ideas, assumptions, and conclusions each board member shares, and not aim those challenges at the board member personally. Sadly, this level of mutual respect is sorely lacking in much of today’s political discourse.

So, are great meetings possible? Absolutely, but they require a commitment from board members to engage constructively. They require a commitment to recognize that those who disagree with me often have experiences that are different than mine which also represent the experiences of others who our organization is trying to serve, and which may contribute to a more effective, and longer lasting solution to any given problem we, as a board, may be addressing.

Read more about the Components of Extraordinary Governance in this recent article, and this one from 2014, on the Michigan State University Extension news website.

Michigan State University Extension’s Government and Public Policy Team and the Center for Local Government Finance and Policy provide educational programs for government officials and citizens regarding many aspects of local and tribal governments in Michigan. Please contact the author at amrhein@anr.msu.edu for more information.

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