Friday, May 22, 2015

How Long (or Short) Should a Board Meeting Be?

When CEOs gather, a common question pops up from both rookie and experienced executives: “How long should our board meeting be?”

One size doesn’t fit all, of course. I usually answer with this Q & A directed to the 16th president of the United States: "Mr. Lincoln, how long do you think a man’s legs should be?" Lincoln responded: "Long enough to reach the ground."

Ditto board meeting length: long enough to accomplish your goals.

Some boards meet monthly over lunch. Others meet quarterly for a half-day. Another common pattern: two 24-hour meetings per year, plus two conference calls per year. One board I served met from Monday 2 p.m. to Tuesday 2 p.m., so board members could fly in on Monday morning and fly home on Tuesday afternoon—just one night away from home.

Local or regional organizations have different needs than national or international ministries. I have my druthers on meeting frequency and length and I tilt more toward the underlying values described in Jeffrey Sonnenfeld’s Harvard Business Review masterpiece, “What Makes Great Boards Great.”  

After studying board performance and CEO leadership for 25 years, Sonnenfeld’s conclusion is startling. “It’s not rules and regulations [or meeting length?]. It’s the way people work together,” says the author.

Sonnenfeld studied the common wisdom on effective governance (board size, age of board members, independence, active committees, etc.)—and discovering that these “pillars” made little difference in effectiveness, the author asked, “So if following good-governance regulatory recipes doesn’t produce good boards, what does?”

“The key isn’t structural, it’s social.”

Read the article (it’s convicting) and I’m guessing you’ll wonder if your entire board governance package is time-appropriate.  Some questions:
   • Has your board invested adequate time on the “social” side of building and enhancing relationships so, as Sonnenfeld suggests, your board practices a “virtuous cycle of respect, trust and candor?”
   • Are board meetings rushed—with no time for prayer, except the perfunctory opening and closing tip of the hat to Almighty God?
   • Are big issues (including possible conflicts of interest) identified on the agenda with appropriate time to hear from God and all board members?
   • Is there a spiritual discernment process in place for inviting new board members to join this holy circle?
   • Is serious time allocated for the CEO’s annual performance review?
   • Is thoughtful agenda time budgeted for the board’s annual self-assessment process?

Again, one size doesn’t fit all. Short meetings often short-circuit effective governance. Long board meetings may be long for all the wrong reasons. 

Noting “phone-book-size board reports,” Sonnenfeld asks, “What kind of CEO waits until the night before the board meeting to dump on the directors a phone-book-size report, that includes buried in a thicket of subclauses and footnotes, the news that earnings are off for the second consecutive quarter? Surely not a CEO who trusts his or her board. Yet this destructive, dangerous pattern happens all the time.”

Like I said: convicting. 

At your next meeting begin with Psalm 90:12, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (NIV)

QUESTION: Is it time to focus on governance objectives and outcomes—and then discern perhaps a new pattern for the frequency and length of your board meetings?

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