Transforming Church Team Blog
resourcing leaders…reenvisioning the future

Putting Your Board’s Agenda to Work

Scott Kronlund, Senior Consultant

Scott Kronlund

I was recently invited to sit down for a cup of coffee with a woman who had recently accepted the position of Board Chair of a private, Christian high school.  She was particularly concerned about keeping her board engaged in a meaningful way and wanted to pick my brain.  She was well aware of the Carver model of policy governance, but had spoken with other board chairs who reported that, somehow, the model, at times, had just fallen “flat.”  Although properly articulated board policies certainly serve as valuable tools in our leadership “tool box”, they do not, in and of themselves, necessarily guarantee high levels of board member engagement. However, there is one tool that has served me well over my years in board leadership in “raising the bar” for my fellow board members, and that is the meeting agenda itself.

I’m sure this may sound a bit wacky, but hear me out.  According to the Leadership Triangle (as Kevin has just begun to lay out with more to come), the governing board, as a whole, must be facile in three essential modes of thinking: Transformational (aka adaptive, generative, “sense-making”), Strategic (aka visionary, synthesizing), and Tactical (aka operational, fiduciary, technical).  The challenge is that not many of us are equally gifted in all three areas.  However, most of us will tend to lean more toward one area over the others as our preferred mode of thinking.  Consequently, when recruiting new board members, it is important to formally assess which mode of thinking comes most naturally to each current member while striving to maintain a proper balance among all three on the board as a whole through the recruitment process.  (In addition to Kevin’s upcoming book, I would also refer you to Chait, Ryan, and Taylor’s book, Governance as Leadership as a handy resource in support of better board engagement.)

So, how does this relate to agenda management? Simply stated, I have found that the board’s agenda must be compelling enough to keep members “coming back.”  One such an approach is to organize the agenda around these three modes of thinking, making sure that there’s something for everyone.  For instance, I am very much a transformational thinker.  I love entertaining the “what ifs”, but fall victim to boredom in overly detailed fiduciary discussions.  However, knowing that I will have my time to shine, I’m much more willing to listen carefully to my colleagues who excel in the other two modes.  In the end, the board, as a whole, is wiser for it.

In addition, the agenda must be planned well in advance of any given meeting.  Too often, I’ve received hastily crafted email requests asking for potential board agenda items as if the board’s agenda is nothing more than a shopping list magnetically secured to the refrigerator door.  The board’s agenda must be more purposeful.  Remember, it’s the board’s responsibility to see that the core values are protected and that the organization’s mission and vision (as manifested by its strategic objectives) is fulfilled.  But, what if all of your board’s members aren’t “there” yet, then how will you accomplish this?  One way, is to begin preparing the upcoming meeting’s agenda in light of the quality of the discussion of the last meeting (e.g. Was the discussion properly focused on issues of governance vs. operational management?  Were all three modes of thinking included?) and where you want board deliberations to go in the future.  In other words, no one meeting agenda should stand alone; instead, board leaders must always be planning a series of agenda aimed at taking the board from Point A to Point B over the long haul in pursuit of the organization’s envisioned future.

One final practical rule-of-thumb:  Agenda preparation takes time and careful thought.  From my experience, if board leaders don’t have a pretty clear understanding of the expected outcomes from the discussion of each agenda item, then they are inadequately prepared.  In fact, I have been involved with very successful boards where leaders spend nearly twice as much time in agenda preparation than the scheduled duration of the meeting, especially when organizing meeting materials for distribution and planning for an ongoing series of board meetings.

I hope you have found this useful.  Please feel free to share any of your personal experiences so we can all benefit from the collective wisdom of the Transforming Church group.  May your next meeting be highly engaging!  Blessings, Scott


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