Are these your Board meetings?

George woke up early on the day of the Board meeting and realised with a sinking feeling that he still hadn’t found time to read all the board papers they had sent through from Head Office nearly three weeks ago.   Even though he had been retired for nearly a year, he seemed to be busier than ever and just had not found a minute to attack that huge pile of documents and background reading.  But he was sure that some of his fellow board members would have read them and he was confident that he could pick up the gist of the discussion.

Across town, Peter was looking forward to a good day as he prepared for the short journey to Head Office.  He was really looking forward to the Board meeting today because he was going to tell the Chief Executive exactly where he was going wrong and what he must do immediately to sort things out.  He had been discussing the issue with colleagues at work and knew that the organisation would be much better off doing things his way.  He was confident his fellow Board members would follow his lead.

Making an early start at his desk David, the Chief Executive, was miserable.  He had also woken up with a horrible sinking feeling in his stomach knowing that he had to face another interminable Board meeting which was likely to go on all day and produce very little that was helpful to him.   There would be endless, pointless discussions achieving nothing except frustration and high blood pressure.  He was acutely aware that the organisation was facing the worst crisis of its long history so could not understand why the Board members seemed to go out of their way to make matters worse, failing to either grasp the issues or refusing to make any constructive decisions.

Meanwhile, in a galaxy and another Boardroom far, far away, Chris - a Chief Executive with a difficult decision to make that day - was involved in a brisk discussion with his Board.  The discussion was aimed at getting through the various elements of today’s key issue and were informed, motivated and to the point.  He was looking forward to getting a decision on the issue by close of play.  He had planned the meeting with military precision, had previously arranged several detailed discussions with his Board Chair and Deputy Chair and was confident of their support.  They, in turn, had taken time to gather support offline from other Board members and all were happy that the decision they wanted to reach was the right move for the organisation, for the members and the staff.  They had agreed a detailed agenda and schedule for the meeting so all of the preparation was going to result in decisions and specific actions.  Excitement and innovation were the order of the day.

It all sounds like the beginning of a bad novel doesn’t it?  But George is not alone and David does not suffer in isolation either.  Chris is, perhaps, a rarer breed.  They represent opposing ends of the spectrum.   At one end are organisations whose board members are ‘on the board’ but not necessarily ‘in the work’ while organisations with fully functional, supporting Boards are at the other. 

Do you recognise any of these scenarios, have you had a moment of sympathy with any of these characters?   How many of you can identify with happy Chris, confident in his Board and the support it gives him both personally and to the organisation?

We have all met Peter over the years, haven’t we?  Peter drives his knowledge and experience steamroller with certainty, happy in his conviction that there are no other strong voices or – heaven forbid – structures and strategies in place to prevent his headlong rush to fill the void he perceives with his own world view.

These scenarios are, as they say, altered to protect the innocent and, hopefully, less and less organisations find their experience locked at the negative extreme but many do still struggle to find the balance which will allow them to deal with day to day business and to fulfil the expectations of all concerned.

Boards are valuable, the individuals who step up to occupy their seats are incredibly important resources for any organisation and we welcome them with gratitude.  However, even the best of them cannot function at full capacity if an organisation’s governance arrangements hamper or hinder or, at best, do not support their activities and their peaceful coexistence with the organisation’s management team.

In these challenging times organisations have an increasing need to continuously improve their working practices, to examine and re-examine how and why they do things.  ‘Working smarter’ is an ugly phrase but it does hold the ring of truth.  Organisations not only need to function optimally they must also be nimble and flexible at times, able to make decisions because they are confident in their internal knowledge and capability.  They also need to be honest enough to know when it is time to take stock and check whether they meet current good practice.

One area which will effectively pre-determine the outcome of any meeting is the health and functionality of the relationship between the Board and the Senior Management Team.  That relationship depends on absolute clarity about the roles and responsibilities for each individual involved, for both the management team and Board members. Is this all about assumptions or do you have defined statements to which members sign up on a regular basis?

Whatever the current relationship between your management team and your Board it could well be wise to remind yourself that any organisation can be improved.  Is it perhaps time to re-examine your governance structures and take an objective look at the skills composition of your board.  Does it offer you the support and decision making capability that makes Chris so fortunate? 

If not then fix it now.  We all have far too much work to do to stay hampered by arrangements which don’t support the requirement.  Don’t just stay in the game, dictate the rules.  Can you really afford not to?

(This article originally published by Susie Kay in AMI, 2011)