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July 01, 2021 Vol. 46, No. 6

Designing board meetings that inspire

By Marilyn Cavicchia

Serving on a board is supposed to be transformational work (at least some of the time), and now it, too, has been transformed. But whether boards continue to meet virtually, resume meeting in person, or develop a hybrid approach, one thing remains as true as ever: Encouraging board members to do their best work requires designing meetings that engage and inspire them.

Here, courtesy of the ABA Division for Bar Services Consulting Services team, are some tips that will help do that—regardless of where and how the board meeting takes place.

Be explicit about the time commitment … and honor it. Remember, we all have short attention spans.

  • Take a tip from remote learning: Think in terms of synchronous and asynchronous work. Giving board members a thoughtful agenda and some materials to review in advance—not 100 pages of materials, but a few key questions to think about—can help maximize the time the board spends together.
  • Set expectations. What kind of work do we need to do today? For example, are we building our understanding of a topic? Identifying options to address a problem? What's the "altitude" at which we should stay during this meeting? 
  • Don’t sacrifice discussion time to get through the agenda. Ideally, board discussion should account for 80 percent of the meeting time.
  • To make room, consider limiting the amount of time given to reporting.
  • Robert’s Rules can help keep things moving—especially if you don’t have a facilitator for board meetings—but shouldn’t be used to squash productive discussion (and dissent).
  • If an issue sparks a longer, more lively discussion than most, consider voting on the matter at the next meeting rather than cutting things short to get to the vote. This can also help give board members time, outside of the meeting, to reflect rather than voting based on their first emotions.

Introverts and extroverts. Big-picture thinkers and those who are more action-oriented. Newer lawyers and older ones. Diverse lawyers. Make sure everyone feels included and comfortable.

  • If the board is larger than 15 members, consider breaking into smaller groups for some portions of the discussion.
  • When asking for feedback, allow time for people to reflect, and even write some notes, first. This tactic will help your introverts feel more comfortable and will make the discussion more inclusive. 
  • Need to deal with the big picture before you get down to smaller details (or vice versa)? Let everyone know that you’ll be drilling down or zooming out in a bit. 
  • Chit-chat based on what we have in common (such as law school) is great. But each board member should commit to finding something in common with other board members, rather than just talking to those they already know well.
  • Many of these tips start with awareness. It's likely that some board members know a few basics about their own personality (introvert vs. extrovert, for example). But can you move beyond labels to talk about how various thinking and discussion styles and preferences might play out during a board meeting? This can help board members understand themselves and each other better, and it can also help design an agenda that brings out the best in everyone.

Move beyond icebreakers to ask questions that help board members connect on a deeper level and build trust—and not just at the first board meeting. For example:

  • Why did you want to join the board (or, Why do you make time to do this)?
  • What perspectives do you bring to board discussions (e.g., career stage, area of practice, other relationships within the community)?
  • What’s the most meaningful experience you’ve had with the bar?
  • Why did you join the bar (for voluntary bars)?
  • What have you learned about __ type of lawyer or area of practice that surprised you?

Have fun!

  • One long-time bar executive makes a point of asking each president, “Are you having fun?” Bar leadership is serious work—but without some fun, even the most devoted board member can burn out and feel less engaged.
  • Another long-time bar executive used to advise never telling jokes. It is true that jokes, as in a set-up and a punchline, can backfire. However, there is a place for a lighter touch and a bit of humor—just make it more natural and less like a stand-up set.
  • Many people roll their eyes at icebreakers and seemingly manufactured attempts to make meetings more fun. Instead, consider engaging the board with meaningful shared experiences: breaking bread together, an outing, a service opportunity. 
  • Finally, if you’ve followed these tips to make the most of the board’s time, to make everyone feel included and comfortable, and to build trust, your board meetings will be more productive, more inspiring—and, yes, more fun, too.