Familiar opening and closing traditions can foster better board meetings
Traditions are an important ingredient of a healthy organizational culture. Our favorite foundation meetings balance the often hurried and transactional work of governance with small traditions at each board meeting. Traditions create a dynamic flow of rhythm and predictability for meetings. They promote a sense of identity and connection. They reinforce and affirm values that are often lost in the day-to-day challenges of getting things done. We get to see many good board meeting traditions. Here are some of our favorites:
We are all familiar with the role of opening traditions in our houses of worship, courtrooms, or sporting events. They set the tone and establish a collective boundary and expectations about decorum. The same is true of board meeting traditions.
- Photo share. Sharing a historical photo, book, or document related to the foundation, its founders, or its beneficiaries will often elicit smiles, trigger stories, and remind members about the mission of the foundation.
- Say something personal. Ask board members to do a quick go-round and say something that they are happy about. Think of it as Thanksgiving without the turkey. This tradition is a way for people to share some news, reconnect, and begin the meeting in a positive mood.
- Read the preamble. Reading the preamble of the foundation’s governing documents or mission is a reminder of the work at hand and an affirmation of the board’s important duty of stewardship. Trust us. It creates a positive vibe.
- Moment of silence. Board members can unconsciously bring in the outside workaday stress of phone calls, emails, traffic, and other pressures of daily life into a board meeting. A moment of silence can clear the psychic air in the room and in people’s heads and set a tone for a calmer meeting.
End the meeting with as much purpose as it began. Closing with board meeting traditions helps sustain group momentum, recognize good work, calm any ruffled feathers, or remind members about the work ahead. Here are good ways to always end meetings on a positive note:
- Highlight accomplishments. Adjourn the meeting by naming what it accomplished. Few meetings are all puppies and sunshine. People tend to dwell on the negative and forget the positive. Remind the group of its progress even if it is incremental.
- Review action items. Most people equate board productivity with action. Listing action items at the end of the meeting is a tried and true accountability strategy. It also helps the secretary correct the minutes. Always review who, will do what, by when. Thank the leaders and volunteers for stepping up. This tradition is also a subtle way of smoking out members that do not step up, e.g. “Hey George, are you willing to look into X,Y, or Z?”
- Acknowledge the hurt. OK, so difficult conversations and hurt feelings are not a fun tradition. It is important, however, to acknowledge what is not working or where there are clear issues to resolve. Think of it as a tradition of kindness and respect.
- Fix meeting dates. We joke that more time is spent deciding on the date for the next meeting than on any other issue. Boards that fix their meeting dates (e.g. second Thursdays in November) avoid playing the smartphone wack-a-mole game to find a date that everyone can agree upon. Yes, it can be done!
Prentice Zinn, a senior consultant with a straightforward style, can be reached at email@example.com. He would enjoy adding your meeting traditions to this list.