Be Intentional About Improving Collaboration

From the challenges hybrid meetings place on fair, balanced input across the board to lack of in-person conversations, remote and hybrid meetings limit communication. Take steps to mitigate that. 

Diverse Views Require a Diverse Board

Recruiting and nomination processes are key when attempting to diversify your board. Make sure you cast a wide net when filling vacancies to ensure you haven’t missed valuable perspectives on the board. 

Prioritize Feedback Throughout the Process

Annual evaluations are good, but real-time feedback throughout the course of the year is better. Evaluate each meeting to get an accurate measure of what your board is thinking and how it’s performing.  

Webinar Recap: Melinda Muth, co-author of ‘Setting the Tone from the Top,’ shares her perspective on how the right people and culture can impact board effectiveness.

Design Lines

There are many factors that determine the effectiveness of a board of directors. But chief among them is the people.

Boards must focus on ensuring they have the right people in the right seats. They must establish agreed-upon processes and build a culture where all board voices are heard – and each director is engaged and ready to contribute.

While this seems simple enough, it’s often easier said than done. This is especially true in today’s post-pandemic, digital-first world.

That said, it’s possible to ensure you have the right people and are building a great culture on your board that fosters effectiveness. But it requires you to rethink the way you’re doing things now – and to be intentional with process management.

Recently, Melinda Muth, co-author of Setting the Tone from the Top, joined OnBoard for a discussion on the people aspect of improving board effectiveness. Their conversation spanned hot-button topics including:

  • How to set and shape board culture
  • How to keep board meeting participants engaged and collaborative
  • Methods for improving board diversity in experience, background, and expertise
  • Strategies for succession planning, including how to identify and fill gaps

Read on to explore three key takeaways from this enlightening session.

Collaboration and Culture Requires Intention – Especially in a Digital-First World

Boardrooms were once the default location of board meetings. But when COVID hit, that all changed. Even today, more than two years later, 100% digital or hybrid board meetings  have become the norm.

There are certainly upsides to the switch to digital meetings. Directors are no longer required to travel to attend a board meeting. What’s more, when in-person attendance isn’t required, boards can recruit members from just about any geographical location.

However, remote meetings also present some key challenges. According to Melinda, they include:

  • Relationship quality: not as many opportunities to really get to know fellow board members
  • Tech exhaustion: cognitive load placed on directors when meeting in Zoom or hybrid formats
  • Challenges with collaboration: While Zoom works for “information exchange and routine coordination,” it isn’t always conducive to deep, collaborative discussion on complex issues

Hybrid meetings present some other challenges. As Melinda put it, “You have the added load of how do you get the group to work effectively when some of the people are on a screen and some are around the table and it splits the meeting into two? And how do you get an inclusive conversation and everyone participating equally when they’re not equal in the way they’re present in the room?”

Relationships are based on the quality of the conversation, and good, strong relationships make for good decision-making. As such, boards need to focus on relationship-building.

For starters, boards must be intentional about meeting format. They must consider the work that needs to be done – and agree on the best tools and meeting format to accomplish it. For example, while asynchronous work can be accomplished digitally, an in-person meeting might be a better choice if your team needs to discuss complex issues.

In addition, relationships are built on “off the record,” casual conversations that happen before or after a meeting – or between breaks. Maybe it’s a group of directors chatting about a shared hobby or asking another about their family. These sidebar conversations aren’t as common when meetings are digital, yet they are still an important part of relationship building. Melinda’s advice is to establish agreed-upon processes to initiate new members and continuously build strong relationships and culture. For example, there should be processes in place to:

  • Select new directors
  • Introduce a new member to a group so they can participate in the group effectively
  • Induct new directors
  • Help members get to know each other so they can feel confident participating

While process management activities may not be a top priority of boards, it should be. As Melinda put it, “These aren’t the things people want to spend a lot of time one because they want to get right into the heart of, say, a technical matter. But they’re the things that I say produce ‘air quality.’ Air isn’t a thing that’s visible and people tend not to want to pay attention to things that aren’t visible. But if the air quality gets really bad, you start to choke!”

Increasing Diversity is Key – and it Goes Beyond Recruitment

Increasing diversity is a goal of just about every board of directors. And it should be. The most effective boards are those that are focused on recruiting candidates with diverse backgrounds and viewpoints.

“If you want to get a good range of views, you have to have a diverse group,” Melinda said.

It starts with developing agreed-upon steps for recruiting and nomination. Boards should take an honest look at their current composition, identify gaps, and then put together a shortlist of candidates who meet the right criteria.

However, Melinda cautions that boards can’t “just put the list together and then invite the people to join with no set steps prior to entering the larger group.”

Instead, there must be agreed-upon steps for prospective board members to get to know existing board members. Ideally, the board should have an opportunity to observe or work with prospective board members (and vice versa). Melinda shared one experience with board recruitment where the board created a shortlist of candidates – and those candidates were invited to join committees (without a guarantee of a board seat).

“In those smaller groups, people could get an idea of the candidate’s expertise – but also how they work in a group and what they were like,” Melinda said. “That process also helped the candidates decide whether they really wanted to get involved with the board. Then, if they were selected for the board, by the time they were actually sitting around the board table for a full meeting, they’d actually already participated in a part of it.”

Ongoing Feedback is Critical to Effectiveness

Feedback is key to improvement. In fact, no individual or group – boards included – improve without feedback.

While annual evaluations are important, Melinda is of the opinion that on their own, they’re not enough. “Feedback is the most valuable when it’s at the moment where the activity or performance decision occurred. To wait one year to talk about it – that’s not the most effective way to go,” she said.

Melinda recommends that boards continue with the annual assessment process – as it includes important measurements regarding processes, dynamics, succession plans, and the like. However, she also recommends boards review their performance at the end of each meeting.

“I suggest closing each meeting with a 10-minute review of how well we did as a group,” Melinda said. “We’re not talking about any one individual’s conversation or contribution – but rather, how well did we handle the discussion around that difficult issue? Did we actually allow everyone to talk? You have to talk about things like that.”

Melinda advises approaching feedback from the lens of what can be done in the future, rather than what went wrong in the past. She said, “I like the concept of feed-forward. If you’ve already done something, it’s pretty hard to change it. People get defensive because they can’t change the past. Instead, discuss what you can the next time to make the meeting more effective. In the spirit of continuous improvement, I think continuous feedback and building up the muscle of the group to be open to that feedback is really important.”

Interested in more fresh insights from improving the effectiveness of your board of directors? Sign up for our next Atlas Leadership webinar, Abandoning the Governance Status Quo, where we’ll be joined by Matt Fullbrook, board effectiveness researcher, educator, and consultant.

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