A foundation’s board meets regularly to make decisions that are consistent with the organization’s mission, culture, and objectives. You know that can be a tall order for any group of strong individuals. Yet, good decisions are made—most likely in an atmosphere of trust, transparency, and respect. How does a foundation board create that atmosphere when its members are geographically dispersed and very busy? What can be done to build rapport in virtual board meetings, to elevate board members’ conversation?
1. Plan a substantive agenda
A well-planned agenda sets expectations for a productive meeting and encourages participation. Daydreaming or multitasking is a lot easier in virtual settings; your agenda can improve focus!
A substantive agenda will encourage board members to prepare for the meeting by reading reports, asking questions and raising concerns in advance, and arriving ready for necessary discussion. Minimize the time devoted to sharing information from reports or committees’ work by sending written materials well in advance and checking in by phone as needed. The board’s time together should focus on meaty matters and making progress toward decisions or new understandings.
Adding time frames to the agenda also urges advance preparation and drives discussion to key issues.
2. Add elements that humanize the virtual
Lead formally, and allow for connections. These seemingly contradictory imperatives make sense for a governing entity that wants to meet its objectives and tap into its members’ talents and perspectives. How do these connections form when board members usually meet virtually?
As convenient and productive as the virtual setting can be, it is lacking in the connective tissue of coffee breaks and casual conversation. Consider ways to humanize the virtual and create opportunities to build rapport. Board chairs might rely on one of these familiar opening and closing traditions or open each meeting with a different warm-up question, giving each participant a chance to speak.
Difficult topics are made more so without the benefit of eye contact and communicative body language. Prepare to discuss a complex agenda item by taking a straw poll, e.g. ask each member for three words describing their thoughts on the matter, to give everyone a sense of their colleague’s perspectives before a deeper discussion.
Most boards, even more so if a family board, have long term relationships that embody elements of trust and personal knowledge, but can also enshrine dysfunctional patterns (like who drowns out whom and who hangs back but is resentful). These are easier to manage in person, so virtual facilitators should be firm and compensate for these patterns with intention.
3. Keep everyone engaged
Even a one-hour virtual board meeting can reflect the board’s values and culture. Set some ground rules together for meeting participation; these underpinnings of respectful engagement could be part of a code of conduct that is reviewed periodically.
Involve everyone in meetings, particularly virtual ones. Give advance assignments to lead different agenda items, and call on people during the meeting. Think about mixing up the order of inviting people’s opinions so the format is not always “open mic” and not always the same speaking order.
Avoid end-of-meeting doldrums. Keep to the timed agenda and discourage people from dropping off the connection gradually. Near the end time, ask a few questions to surface hopes and concerns not yet expressed. The final agenda items should be a summary of accomplishments and a list of next steps. End cleanly and no one will sign off wondering whether the hour was well-spent.
4. Minimize technology frustrations
The best platform for your virtual meeting depends on your board members – on their devices, internet connections, physical locations, and comfort level with technology.
Video conferencing seems like the best alternative to a comfortable conference room. Platforms like Zoom or Skype let participants see one another and follow a presentation on a shared screen. Ideally this face-to-face connection reduces interruptions and improves the flow. Video is not always possible. Bandwidth and equipment constraints or large numbers of people might mean that your interactions would be optimized on a webinar platform like Go-to-Meeting or in a more traditional Free-Conference-Call line.
No matter your choice, test the technology ahead of time and be sure each participant has the tools they need to join. Of course, have a back-up plan!
5. Meet in person too
Busy schedules and expense of travel may mean that meeting in person is infrequent but, at a minimum, an annual meeting is vital to governing as a team. A lot has been written on this.
A Science Magazine article, How to Collaborate, describes trusting relationships between researchers as key to effective scientific collaboration—relationships built on clear ground rules, an understanding of one another’s skills, and opportunities to get to know one another.
By all means, consider strategic decisions in person. Senior leadership at Caesars Entertainment, according to this Forbes magazine article, has coined a mantra to emphasize the importance of in-person meetings within their organization: “If it’s not that important, send an email. If it’s important but not mission critical, pick up the phone. If it’s critically important to the success of your organization, go see someone.”
The efficiency and convenience of attending a one-hour meeting from the comfort of your own desk is clear. Virtual meetings are a necessity and can be great, with purposeful attention to relationships. Truly governing together, from distant desks, in an atmosphere of trust, depends on virtual board meetings that build rapport and a sense of accomplishment.
Contact Prentice Zinn, principal and senior consultant, to discuss the governance issues that matter most to you.