Time is the single most valuable resource at the disposal of corporate boards. Those precious hours around the boardroom table are crucial as they bring together the skills and experience of busy directors to set strategy, deliver oversight and serve the best interests of stakeholders. With boards under more pressure than ever before, it is essential that board meeting productivity is high, so organisations get the most value from their board. Achieving more, with greater efficiency, is a must for modern boards. So, what strategies should directors and company secretaries be following to make board meetings productive and efficient?
1. Preparation promotes board meeting productivity
Much of what makes for a productive board meeting happens before the event itself. Directors need plenty of time and the right information to review prior to the meeting so that, when the day arrives, they are fully informed and ready to engage. A director who has not had time to read and analyse meeting materials will not be able to contribute properly and will be failing in their duty to the organisation.
Directors should have sufficient time to review the agenda and board pack well before the meeting. The most efficient way to do this is via a digital board portal (sometimes referred to as board management software). These types of solutions have overtaken the hefty hard-copy board packs of the past. They serve as a more secure and flexible way for directors to read, review and annotate meeting materials.
Typically, directors receive meeting materials at least one week prior to the meeting. However, it’s a fact of life, that last-minute changes will occur. A digital board portal makes it easy for board administrators to make changes, allowing directors to receive alerts notifying them of the update. In this way, everyone arrives at the meeting equipped with the latest data.
2. Make the agenda work harder
The agenda is the backbone of the meeting and should be designed for maximum productivity. Items should be balanced between procedural issues and strategic discussions, allowing for a mix of in-depth and higher-level topics. All in all, this creates a good cadence in the room. If there are items that often don’t get the required focus because they are at the bottom of the agenda, try re-shuffling them so they get the proper attention.
The agenda should be balanced between retrospective reporting and forward-looking strategic topics. Ultimately, the business objective of the board is to set future strategy, so it’s suggested that a board spends one-third of its time reviewing achievements and performance reports, and two-thirds looking ahead to future challenges.
Another best practice is to make it clear which items need to be approved at the meeting and which are for discussion. Items for approval should be socialised with the board beforehand, so approval is more of a formality in the meeting itself and frees up time for discussion of other topics.
Also, remember that directors are human. Schedule regular breaks in the agenda and ensure that the environment is comfortable and well-provisioned with food and drink to keep energy levels up.
3. Maintain good pace and energy
About energy, productivity is higher when there is pace and energy in the room. This is where the Chair must step up and ensure that meetings progress at a suitable rate and don’t get side-tracked onto peripheral issues. Some Chairs are more adept at this than others and it is a learned skill. If a Chair is struggling in this area, it is worthwhile investing in training to help them in this role.
Another useful best practice is to allocate an allotted time for each agenda. This ensures everyone is on the same page, over how much time a topic is up for discussion and provides an early warning that the meeting may be losing focus, thus impacting efficiency. Of course, there are occasions when it becomes clear that a discussion needs more time, which is where a versatile Chair will adjust the schedule so that the right degree of focus is achieved. But in general, having a timetable as well as an agenda to work to, boosts productivity and keeps the meeting on track.
4. Enable secure notetaking for future reference
When preparing for board meetings, directors are busy making notes on meeting materials and marking points to query. However, the imperative for confidentiality means that during the meeting itself, any hard copy notes made must be subsequently destroyed. Additionally, directors should refrain from making and storing board meeting notes on personal devices, as this creates known security risks.
Subsequently, this robs directors of the opportunity to refer to their meeting notes at a future date and remind themselves of their own and others’ contributions. And this brings us to one of the crucial value-adds of a board portal. The inherent security of a digital board portal means that notes can be captured and retained without the risk of them becoming public at a future date. Director productivity is invariably improved when the notes they take in the meetings can be kept for future reference.
5. Keep directors current on industry and governance issues
Informed directors are productive directors. For this reason, it is essential for newly appointed directors to receive a rigorous onboarding process that includes relevant company and industry-related information. This ensures they have the opportunity to see the business in action to help them make more informed decisions in the future. However, keeping directors up to speed shouldn’t stop once they have settled into their roles. A key tactic for keeping directors engaged is alerting them to interesting and relevant industry and governance-related developments as they happen.
By regularly sharing a digest of articles, news stories and industry data with directors, organisations can help them stay up-to-date with the latest intelligence. This makes them better placed to interpret the impact of external factors on the organisation and more effectively develop competitive strategies. A tool such as Diligent Governance Intel software puts all this data at directors’ fingertips, allowing organisations to deliver curated, relevant information on a regular basis, so when directors get into the board meeting, they have all the context they need.
6. Make board meeting productivity part of the evaluations process
Productive meetings are a sign of a well-functioning board. As such, perceptions of meeting productivity and ideas for continuous improvement should form part of the Board’s regular evaluation procedures.
It’s useful to consult with directors immediately after each board meeting to identify what went well and areas for improvement while the event is fresh in their minds. Sending a simple survey, such as the one generated by Diligent’s company secretary software, enables board administrators to create director surveys quickly and easily so that immediate issues and ideas can be picked up and actioned. Additionally, it might be helpful to conduct a rigorous evaluation of productivity as part of the board evaluation cycle. This should assess the board’s overall effectiveness and the extent to which this is supported or limited by its ability to be productive when meeting in plenary and in committees.
7. Beyond the boardroom — facilitate productive director relationships
Healthy working relationships between board directors are essential to in-meeting productivity. If directors only interact with one another at quarterly board or committee meetings, the efficiency that comes from having confidence in fellow directors’ skills and insight will be slow to establish. Directors should be encouraged to work together outside of the boardroom, but this must be balanced with the need to keep board business secure.
This is particularly the case with Non-Executive directors who are likely to be working from personal laptops and email accounts outside the corporate perimeter. By providing a secure messaging system for directors specifically, organisations can facilitate close working relationships with other board members, without exposing their confidential conversations to unintended parties.
Building a productive board meeting ecosystem
A lot of what makes for productive board meetings happens outside the meeting itself, in the wider board ecosystem. It is about ensuring that the right information, relationships and technology are in place to enable directors and executive teams to work effectively in board meetings and to make the best use of their most valuable resource: time.
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