Preparing for Meetings, Preparing for the Future

What does it take to get boards to focus on thinking ahead?

I confess: I was a lousy Boy Scout. My wayfinding skills were wanting. My knot-making talents were mediocre at best. I barely squeaked my way into the Webelos ranks, and my enthusiasm for climbing the scouting ladder was tepid. The whitewater rafting expeditions I read about in Boys’ Life sure looked like fun, but they also seemed well out of reach for a kid growing up in an industrial Chicago suburb. Besides, who needed wayfinding skills when my neighborhood’s streets were on a grid and so plainly numbered?

My failure as a scout doesn’t gnaw at me too badly decades later. But I do think that failure reflects a regrettable closed-mindedness to BSA’s core motto: Be prepared. Thinking ahead, considering the big picture, anticipating challenges and acquiring the skills to address them—these things simply weren’t on my radar, though practically every piece of printed scouting material exhorted me to do them.  A neuroscientist might know better, but I don’t think preparation is an ability we’re born with; we need to be trained in it, over and over again.

What is of concern that, if we don’t address it, can become alarming?

Which brings me to board work.

A recent piece by governance author Simone Joyaux at the Nonprofit Quarterly website stresses the virtues of preparation for boards, both from an abstract and a practical point of view. “What Do You Talk About at Your Board Meetings?” the title of the article asks, and Joyaux’s answer is clear: Too often, the wrong stuff. More specifically, boards waste time fussing over operational and management issues when they ought to focus on leadership issues and setting direction for their organizations. That’s a complicated nut to crack: leaders routinely get mixed signals about whether they should lead or manage, and strategy expert John Kotter recently wrote that business leaders still aren’t clear on the difference.

As one solution, Joyaux proposes stressing leadership-focused questions onto the agenda. Her six suggested questions are all sensible, but I particularly like her last one: “What is of concern that, if we don’t address it, can become alarming?” The question does two things: It prompts the board to remember its mandate to think about what its mission is (because something alarming can do harm to members), and it prompts them to shift into a planning-oriented mindset. It forces the board to, well, be prepared.

Besides that big-picture approach, Joyaux proposes something more basic as a way to get more leadership out of boards: Stop bringing handouts to meetings. “Expect—insist—that your board members come prepared, with their materials in hand,” she writes. “Board members should read the material in advance of the meeting, making notes, highlighting key items, whatever. Advance preparation—by staff and board members—is essential for effective meetings.”

That’s a small action, but one that eradicates time-hoovering scanning during the meeting itself, and it’s environmentally responsible to boot.

I know some boards might bristle at such efforts—there are elected leaders as disinterested in being prepared as I was in my lackluster Cub Scout days. So what can you do to stress the urgency of acquiring a leadership mindset?


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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