The Two Enemies of Sound Board Decisions

Avoid being pressed for time and making major decisions remotely.

 

by Dan Busby and John Pearson

 

Many board meetings would be more productive
if more attention were given to the setting of the meeting
and the time allocated for the meeting.
 

 

Two national Christ-centered ministries of significant size began to consider an organic merger. After getting serious about the details, a merger plan was determined and approved by the respective organizations. (It is a truly rare time when an organic merger happens.) It was my privilege to serve on the first board of the newly minted entity.

Each of the organizations coming into the merger owned extensive facilities in different cities. It was inevitable that an early post-merger decision was whether to make one of the existing facilities or a different facility in a third city the eventual home of the new entity.

Board members were notified that the decision on the location of the new entity would be made at an upcoming meeting—a meeting to be conducted by conference call. My immediate reaction to the mode chosen for the important meeting was un-B-E-lievable!

The time allotted for the meeting just added insult to injury. The meeting was limited to one hour. To say I was dubious about how the meeting would be conducted was a gross understatement.

The day and hour for the meeting arrived and I was dutifully on the telephone. The topic was introduced, and speeches were made pro and con, with several board members trying to get the attention of the board chair all at the same time. It was awkward.

The one-hour time quickly passed. Board members were still wanting to be heard. But alas, the 60 minutes were up, and the board chair said there would be no more opportunities for speeches because the board was pressed for time.

The vote was taken. The decision was announced. The meeting was over. There was the “click-click-click-click-click” as members went off the line.

One after another, board members left the call with a knot in their stomachs. Why? It was a huge decision. There was inadequate time for deliberation. The discussion was rushed. There was no time to hear from all board members, let alone hear from the Lord.

How did this happen? How could it have been prevented? What is the impact of a very important decision made in this fashion?

Let’s address the first question: how did this happen? The two largest mistakes were:

  • A poor mode was chosen for a very important meeting. A conference call is rarely a good method for considering a significant decision.
  • An overly restrictive time limit was placed on an important meeting. The time allocated to a major decision should be consistent with the relative importance of the decision.

How could this scenario have been prevented and what was the impact of the process? Prevention comes down to board leadership—nothing more, nothing less.

The impact of the meeting left many board members disillusioned. That day, the board leadership lost credibility and it took considerable time to regain it.

How does this true story apply to your board and to your ministry? You may serve on boards for years and never be part of a major merger. But these principles, mode of meeting, and allocation of board time are overarching concepts for many board meetings.

Let’s look at each of these principles.

  • Meeting Principle #1: Meeting mode. There is often a temptation to use a conference call when an in-person meeting is required for appropriate communication among board members. This temptation is heightened when technology allows board members to see each other.

As a participant in many board conference calls, my conclusion is that conference calls—with video or with audio only—are rarely appropriate for anything other than sharing a report or minor decision-making. The more effective dynamics of an in-person board meeting are difficult to replicate online.
 

  • Meeting Principle #2: Meeting time allocation. How can we allocate appropriate time on meeting agendas?
    • Board chair-ministry leader collaboration. Sound allocation of meeting time generally happens only when the board chair and the ministry’s leader work closely together. When the board chair and the ministry leader are one and the same, this can be a short conversation.
    • Discernment in allocating time. The board chair and the ministry leader work closely together in allocating agenda time. Godly discernment is also necessary in determining how much time to set aside for the most significant issues.

      One of the keys is a time cushion. If a board agenda has some flex time built in, then when the board goes long in discussing one issue, the chair knows that the cushion can be used to keep the overall agenda on track.
    • Outstanding execution. This is where the importance of the board chair shines brilliantly. Even when the board chair and ministry leader have designed a solid agenda with a time cushion built in, it often requires deft execution by the board chair to keep a meeting on track.

An unflappable board chair doesn’t lose his or her cool when the meeting is running behind the time allocated. The board chair looks for opportunities to make up the time—perhaps shortening a recess, extending the meeting hours a little, and gently encouraging members to stay focused.

 

BOARDROOM LESSON
_______________________________

Don’t be pressed for time!
Always make major decisions at an in-person board meeting.

  Board Action Steps:

  1. Discern: Carefully consider whether issues, other than reports or basic procedural matters, should be included on conference call agendas.

  2. Prioritize: Allot adequate time for discussion and discernment of major agenda items.

  3. Flex: When an improper meeting mode has been chosen or inadequate time has been allocated for a major agenda item, be willing to make a course correction mid-meeting, if necessary.

 

Prayer

Lord, give us great wisdom in planning
and executing our board meetings. Amen.

 

From More Lessons From the Nonprofit Boardroom: Effectiveness, Excellence, Elephants!, 2019, www.ECFA.org/KnowledgeCenter.


This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.

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