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Trusteeship Magazine

How to Stage Effective Board Meetings

By Richard Riddell
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Before I became a board professional, I was a theater person. It's often said that the path to becoming a board professional is varied: Some have prior experience as lawyers, others as administrators, still others as academics. While I have been a professor and administrator, I have also worked as a professional lighting designer on Broadway and in European opera houses.

Sometimes I'm asked, "Don't you miss the theater?" I respond that the work I do now is just as stimulating as what I did before. In the theater, I collaborated with others to create productions; now I'm part of a team that creates board meetings, and I draw on similar lessons:

Know the whole season. A theater producer often thinks about what shows will make up the season. Planning board meetings has a parallel, in that a good work plan for the year ensures that the right topics are on the agendas of meetings and sequenced in a strategic manner. Each summer, our board leadership meets to create a work plan that is subsequently vetted by committee chairs and finally the full board. Once approved, that plan is the road map for the major topics that will come before the trustees that year.

Staging is important. A meeting is successful not only when the right topics are on the agenda, but also when trustees believe their time is used well and they have sufficient opportunity to delve into issues. Our meetings begin Friday morning and end around noon on Saturday. We always begin with an hour or so of executive session in which the president updates the trustees on events since the last meeting and discusses issues of mutual interest. That sets the stage for the rest of the meeting. Committee meetings follow, and by early afternoon, the first plenary session is held. When an important item requires action, it's good to schedule it for the afternoon session. If trustees reach consensus and take action, they end the day with a sense of accomplishment; if questions remain, there's always the next day to return to the topic for possible resolution.

The secret is in the transitions. I had a directing colleague who seemed to spend as much time staging the transitions between scenes as he did staging the scenes themselves. And it paid off—he won three Tony Awards. Our trustees recess around 5 p.m. on Friday and reconvene Saturday morning at 8 a.m. We give a lot of thought to how that time between sessions is used and how it connects to what is happening in the meeting. Sometimes we schedule a dinner to celebrate an accomplishment that moves the university forward—say, the establishment of a new school. On other occasions, and when there's a campus issue that particularly interests trustees, we'll organize a dinner with breakout discussions to help advance their knowledge. Whatever choice is made, being intentional and linking it to the theme of the meeting is important.

Close on a high note. Our Saturday morning sessions are often focused on strategic reviews of particular schools, discussions of emerging issues, or presentations about new initiatives. In organizing the session, it's important for board members to leave the university with a positive feeling about their work and the university. Consequently, I avoid scheduling contentious issues then and focus instead on topics that will engage trustees and provide valuable input to administrators.

The reviews. What trustees think of the meeting is important to capture. We generally schedule a short executive session at the end of the Saturday plenary so trustees have an opportunity to return to any issue that has come up during the weekend or to signal something that needs follow up before the next meeting. And at least once a year, we invite trustees to fill out evaluation forms on various aspects of the meeting, and we act on suggestions for improvement.

Most good plays tell a story, and I wonder if that's not true for good board meetings as well. Thinking of the beginning, the middle, and the end of a meeting and what you want trustees to take away in terms of knowledge or experience helps ensure that the meeting has shape and purpose.

In the theater, when the curtain comes down, the production team takes satisfaction in a collective job well done. So, too, when board meetings end. And just as in the theater, the end is also the beginning— of planning for the next one.