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Building a High Performing (Virtual) Board

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, July 26, 2017
Building a High Performing (Virtual) Board 
By Beth Quick-Andrews, CAE, Principal, Q & A Business Solutions

In the mid-20th Century, my grandfather was active in many bankers’ professional associations. He sat in many chairs and rose through the ranks during his long and storied career to become part of the leadership of several banking associations. I am told that nothing, I repeat, nothing interfered with his work as a banker or as an association volunteer. If he were alive today, I am certain he would say: “That is just the right way to be a professional.” He was not unique in his opinion. I am sure that his peers felt the same way. This dedication and commitment certainly helped to build many strong associations.

Fast forward fifty or sixty years…Times have changed!  Even though we are more connected than ever before in a global society, we are all the more distracted by all the inputs and outputs that are expected of us on a daily basis. Today’s mantra when asked “How are you?” is “I’m sooooo busy.”  Wasn’t all this technology supposed to give us more free time? (Yes, that and a paperless office too!)

So how does an association develop a high performing Board built on strong interpersonal relationships when Board members don’t have regular face-to-face contact? Here are some keys to success:

Every Board member should be mission-driven and member-focused:  While this may be an overused catch phrase, it gets the point across. Board members should be focused on what is in the best interest of the association as a whole, and not what might benefit any one person or segment of the membership.

Have the right tools in place: To make the most of the Board’s time when they are together virtually, it is important to have a well-put together agenda, Board reports submitted in advance, structured engagement during the meeting, regular contact between meetings, and clear expectations with roles defined.  

An agenda for success:  When putting the agenda together for a virtual meeting (or any meeting for that matter), be sure to structure it in a way that ensures that if time ends up running short, you have covered the essential business.  The use of a Consent Agenda is an efficient way of approving association matters that are not controversial. Motions can be submitted in advance and included on the Consent Agenda.  Next, the agenda should include strategic discussion topics submitted, along with time needed for discussion, on the Board reports.  Add visual time cues to each of the sections on the agenda to help set the stage with expectations for the length of discussions.  If the discussion goes astray, it is much easier to get the discussion back on track by verbally referencing these cues.

Focus on core activities and then expand: It is easy for Board members to get distracted with the next “great idea” that will be “the thing” for the association. It is incumbent upon leadership to ask: Does this fit with the strategic plan? What resources will be required? Do we have the budget? What will we need to stop doing if we take this on? Do the ends justify the means?

Board meetings are a team sport:  Every member of the Board needs to actively participate in order for the team to be successful.  The chair’s job is to be mindful of everyone’s participation in discussion.  It is too easy to “multitask” when on a conference call.  (We have all done it... “sorry, can you repeat the question…I didn’t hear it”). If the virtual meeting is audio only, then it is helpful to keep a list of the names of everyone on the call and make a tick mark by their name when they participate in the discussion.  This helps to see who needs to be encouraged to speak up more and actively participate.  When virtual meetings have a video component, it is easier to see who is engaged and who might still need a nudge.

Can you feel the volunteer love tonight?:  Regular communications from the Board chair, committee chair, and staff thanking volunteers for their time throughout their volunteer time goes a long way to helping volunteers feel appreciated and that their time was well-spent.  It is especially impactful when the thank you includes the positive results of the volunteer’s work such as the results on a successful membership campaign or annual conference. Thank yous can run the whole gamut.  It could be an e-mail to the committee.  It could be a handwritten note to each volunteer, to his/her boss thanking them for allowing this person’s volunteer service, or to his/her family thanking them for allowing their family member to be a part of their professional association.

Utilize video technology tools: One of the reasons the world has gotten smaller is because of the advent of tools such as Skype, Zoom, GoToMeeting and the like. They say a picture is worth 1,000 words…and they say it because it is true. The complete communication spectrum of verbal and non-verbal communication makes all the difference in the effectiveness of Board interactions. These tools make it quick and easy to hop on a call/chat and connect almost as if you walked down the hall to a co-worker’s office. When you can’t be together physically, it’s the next best thing.  We have used Zoom with several clients.  It is very easy to set up, even for the non-tech savvy folks.  One of our client’s calls it the Brady Bunch Board meeting because we all show up in boxes like Mike, Carol, Alice and the kids.  You can also do screen sharing with anyone on the call so everyone can, literally, be on the same page on documents, spreadsheets and presentations.

Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play? A word about civility. I was speaking with a trusted colleague and friend who shared the story about how she was on a call with a client Board while sitting in the community room at the hospice home where her mother was spending her final days. My colleague excused herself for a moment to talk to the janitor to ask him to stop vacuuming until she was done with her call. When she returned to the call, one of the Board members said…all in a huff…“Are we even a priority for you?” Another colleague from her firm was on the call and explained where she was at the time. The Board member did not even acknowledge the extraordinary sacrifice that was being made by my colleague to be on the call given the circumstances and moved on with the rest of the agenda.  

Moreover, while modern technology has made it very easy to connect and communicate faster than ever, we have lost our filters.  We have all had the experience of feeling very justified in sending an e-mail that would have benefitted from spending time in a drafts folder. That momentary exuberance of slaying the dragon is quickly followed by “Oh _______ (fill in the blank with what works for you)!  What have I just done?”  

Sadly, this type of behavior is becoming more the norm than the exception. It is important to remember that everyone is a valued member of the team (volunteers and staff). Each member of the team has the best of intentions in fulfilling his/her commitment to the association. Sometimes life is going to happen. 

As our to do lists get longer, our patience/tempers are shorter.  Here are some keys to maintaining civility in a virtual conversation:

  • Focus on what has brought you together in the first place and what you are trying to accomplish together. Rigorous debate is essential to getting to better outcomes, but it needs to be done as respectfully as possible. Ask yourself “What would I say if I were in person?”
  • Recognize your role. Each member of the team needs to be mindful of the role he or she plays in the organization. What role does the Board chair play in managing the discussion? Should a director say this or that to a peer?  What role should staff have in the discussion? Keeping in mind that everyone is a valued member of the team.
  • Think Q-Tip: Quit taking it personally. A friend of mind is great at coming up with these little phrases. This one helps me a great deal when things get off track.  My experience has shown that when discussions go astray, many times it really has nothing to do with the situation at hand. The current situation may just have been the last straw for someone. Each person needs to take responsibility for his or her role in the discussion.
  • Creating a culture of civility and mutual respect is imperative for a leadership team to not only be successful, but it just the right way to be a professional.

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