To make your gatherings more effective and engaging, first look at the real reasons boards meet. Leaders everywhere seem to be asking the question, “How do we make our board meetings more effective and more engaging?” To answer that question, I think you have to first look at the real reasons that boards meet.
To convey information … sure, but information can be conveyed in an email or a report, too. To make decisions? Yes. That’s easy, and a consent agenda can often do the trick, especially when the decisions are straight-forward and non-controversial. To engage with each other? Yes, to be sure. To build trust among directors and with your CEO. Absolutely. To deliberate and plan for the future. We hope so! And we’re sure that you can identify many more reasons that your board meets…
First, it’s important to know that while most credit unions by regulation have to meet 12 times a year, the regulators do not say that every meeting has to be the same. When we share this with our clients, they are often amazed, but it’s true. And knowing this alone should allow you to open your mind to the possibility of change—because we know what you’re doing. You’re likely opening up Microsoft Word, pulling up last month’s agenda, changing the date, changing a few key items and hitting “save.”
But no more. You don’t have to be bound by the same old agenda that serves up the same old meeting. You can consider rotating the cadence, length, agenda and, yes, the focus of your board meetings throughout the year.
In The State of Credit Union Governance 2020, Quantum Governance, CUES and the David and Sharon Johnston Centre for Corporate Governance at the University of Toronto found that while respondents say they spend 26% of their time on strategic matters (a percentage we dispute given the number of credit union board agendas and meeting minutes that we review each year!), they think they should be allocating 36% instead. At the same time, credit union directors report spending about 17% of their time on a review of financial results (again, here we think this is largely underestimated!), and they’d like to get this number down to about 14%.
But how do you go about shifting the focus of your meetings to better reflect the real reasons that a credit union board meets? Particularly in the face of the great challenge that the pandemic has posed, which has greatly limited, if not completely eliminated, your board’s ability to meet in person at times.
In the summer months, when everyone is otherwise focused, consider a brief, one-hour meeting via Zoom during which you can quickly dispense with your fiduciary oversight responsibilities, check on where you are strategically, vote on any important issues coming out of committee (via a consent agenda), and make it to the beach by noon. (You might also consider this during the holidays, when the pressure to get to the beach becomes the pressure to go holiday shopping or at other busy times of the year.)
Then, identify those “regular” board meetings that you need to have throughout the year and revise your agendas so that they include more time for strategic discussion and less focus on financial-related matters. Remember, it’s highly likely that your credit union’s professional staff has more skilled financial folks on its team than you will ever have on your board. Your job as a board member is to trust them but verify that what they are saying is correct. Not to do their work. (See two sample agendas.)
Then consider a few board meetings a year where you meet for a longer period of time to really take a deep dive on a few strategic matters. Maybe hold a three- to four-hour board meeting where you take care of the business first and then spend the rest of the time talking and exploring the future of the credit union or critical questions that are before you.
Finally, of course, it’s important for every board and management team to spend considerable time in retreat together each year—a one- or two-day time away from it all where you can plan cooperatively, as constructive partners, for the future of the credit union.
All of these count as board meetings. Developing a calendar for your board that incorporates a wide variety of meetings will increase strategic conversations at the board level, ensure that you still keep a critical eye on those important fiduciary matters and, most importantly, keep your board members on their toes and engaged.