High Impact Board Meetings in a Virtual Setting

How to Engage your Board Members during social distancing

Typical board meetings can be underwhelming and disengaging, this issue is heightened when board meetings are virtual. According to ABA’s data, virtual meetings typically see an average drop in strategic impact scores by an average of 38%. Given the social distancing that we are currently experiencing and the fact that many organizations will be conducting their upcoming board meetings virtually, we thought it would be helpful to provide some tactical ideas to increase meeting engagement and avoid low impact meetings during this important time.  

Technology Preparation

One of the key issues that we have seen in virtual meetings is someone is always struggling to “log-in” either due to the complexity of the video conferencing platform signup or a poor wifi connection. This can be a definite issue for board members in other countries. Some platforms may not be accessible in other countries. You also do not want to find out that there is a problem when the board meeting is scheduled to begin. I recently observed a client’s virtual meeting and they had all of these issues with a couple of board members. This caused the meeting to start late and a number of other issues that we mention in this post. 

These issues can cause people to just call in. To be clear conference calls for board meetings are traditionally even less effective and will often increase many of the issues that we mention here. “Call-ins” should be avoided unless a board member’s connection issues are so significant it causes them not to be able to contribute. Everyone should be available on video.

An easy way to address some of these issues is to test the platform and identify connection issues ahead of time. When the team sends out the information for the call they should not only include a link with the video conference information but they should also include a second link to “test” the platform with the board members a few days prior to the meeting. This should not take more than 5-10 minutes and the board members can even use that time if they have some clarifying questions prior to the meeting. Some of the better platforms we have seen utilized for meetings like this are Zoom, Circles, and GoToMeeting

Engaging Agendas and Board Documents

Your agenda design is always critical but it will be even more so for a virtual meeting. Your current agenda preparation process will probably need to be completely changed if you want to engage your board members in collaborative conversations. More than ever before, good Governance is not going to help the CEO and Team manage their way out of this. Be prepared to think about what information the team needs from the board and not the other way around. 

Here are some easy steps to follow to set up a High Impact virtual board meeting;

  • Limit the meeting to no more than 2-3 hours – more than that and it will be difficult if not impossible to keep board members engaged. At this time, board meetings should be focused on actions and ideas, not reports. If more time is needed more meetings could be warranted during this time. (i.e. instead of quarterly meetings maybe consider increasing the cadence until social distancing ends).
  • Eradicate powerpoints and executive presentations – this is powerful advice for all #HighImpactBoardMeetings but it is especially critical for virtual meetings. If you walk your board members through a presentation in a virtual meeting, plan on them catching up on emails, texts, playing with the dog, etc. Anything other than listening and providing value.  
  • Get rid of reporting – meetings at this moment in time are not about how bad things are but how we are going to address the next critical steps. ALL Board Meetings should be focused on collaboration time and idea generation and not reporting bad news. SPOILER ALERT – for the immediate future most organizations are not going to have great news to report.  
  • Limit the Topics – the agenda should have no more than one or two critical topics plus a third for governance-related activities (if needed). Any more than that and it will be hard to complete the meeting on time. 
  • How to Help – Prepare the pre-reads in such a way to give all the background to the questions you want your Board Members thinking about. What’s the issue and how can the board help the team? Why are we spending time discussing this? What’s been done already? What assumptions are there? and critically, what are the questions your board members should prepare thoughts on that will be most helpful to the team?
  • Provide a “state of the company” or CEO update in the documents setting up some of the key issues or events facing the organization. This will save time from the CEO having to provide a verbal update to open the meeting. The Board Members can move quickly into Q&A based on this information. 

#HighImpactBoardMeetingFacilitation

A stable technology platform and well thought out documentation are critical but having a collaborative meeting that leads to High Impact in a virtual setting will require unique facilitation tactics. The tactics we highlight below will reduce the chances of the Board and Team members constantly speaking over or interrupting each other. It will also make it difficult for board members to multitask on other projects during the meeting. 

Start the meeting by establishing clear “rules of engagement”. You may also want to reiterate these if you have a technology “test” call. Other important board virtual meeting starting tactics include;

  • Mute participants when they are not speaking. You may have to call people out on this until it becomes second nature.
  • Ensure everyone is utilizing their video. NO CALL INS
  • Participants should text the facilitator on the platform when they want to speak and the facilitator will ask you to unmute. 
  • Ask participants to find a quiet room and a neutral background – make sure kids/dogs/builders, etc… are as much as possible “neutralised”.
  • Ensure everyone has been on the platform before and it works and that they know how to operate it.
  • Request people join the call early. For the board members at least 5 minutes and the host 10 minutes. This extra time can be utilized for discussions about the virus, business, family, etc…

Driving engagement during the meeting is going to be critical. A two to three-hour video conference is a long time to keep people engaged, but it becomes easier when you have your board members provide the content and collaboration rather than the team presenting powerpoints and reports. Here are tactics to keep the collaboration and engagement at the highest levels possible given the circumstances;

  • All participants should keep their comments logically biased with non-emotional or opinion biased responses. This is going to be difficult because it is an emotionally charged time right now but these types of comments may not lead to actionable ideas. 
  • Develop strong questions, not strong opinions. We observed this in a recent board discussion between a board member and the CEO of one of our clients. The board member was adamant in his “opinion” that the world’s financial markets are going to freeze-up. His recommendations were biased based on this strong opinion. The problem is this opinion is clearly not a fact (yet or maybe never). However, the individual could have made the same point if they had posed this in the form or a question “what are the actions the team is ready to take if the financial markets lock up?” or “would it be helpful if the board worked with the team in developing a contingency plan if the financial markets lock up?”. Strong questions lead to more ideas, collaboration, and actions. Opinions can lead to more disagreement about the premise of the opinion rather than the next steps. 
  • Board Members should avoid asking for the executive team to provide them with additional information whenever possible. We hear these types of requests in a lot of meetings and it is normally a waste of time when things are going great. When a company is in crisis mode it can be more than a distraction. 
  • Limit the dominant board members or “talking heads”. This never drives engagement, but it is especially true in a virtual meeting with limited time. A good rule is to avoid having anyone speak for longer than 3 mins at a stretch.
  • Avoid the “I agree with….” statements as much as possible. They waste valuable time in a meeting. If moving through an idea multiple board members have the same general opinion then ask if anyone has a different opinion rather than allowing everyone to simply agree. 
  • Initiate a one-word/sentence closeout from everyone when the meeting is finished.
  • Send out a short post-meeting survey and collect insights from the board members and team on how the meeting went. This will allow you to analyze how well the meeting went and ways to adjust your processes to generate greater value in the future. If this crisis continues for an extended period of time (we all hope not) this will provide you with insights on how to increase engagement in the next meeting. 

Finally, a key consideration is that most of these tactics (excluding the Technology prep and meeting time) are High Impact Board Tactics for face-to-face board meetings as well and will help you leverage your board to help the team address any issue or opportunity that comes up in the future. Remember that it may seem easier and cheaper to have virtual meetings when social distancing restrictions are relaxed but it is not and generally speaking, virtual meetings will never be as impactful or engaging as face to face meetings.

If you would like a free infographic on steps to create a High Impact Virtual Board Meeting click here