Aligning Your Board to Navigate Change

By Matthew Maxwell, AGB OnBoard May 25, 2023 Blog Post

Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.

Webinar Recap: Heather Fehn, chief of staff and secretary to the board of trustees at The College of New Jersey, and Matt Maxwell, senior consultant at AGB OnBoard, explored how your board can more effectively navigate change.

There’s an old saying that the only constant in life is change.

Change is inevitable, and boards must keep pace. The most successful boards are those that can get up to speed quickly—and adjust course accordingly. But what can boards do to ensure all directors are aligned during the moments that matter rather than wasting precious meeting time getting everyone up to speed?

Recently, Heather Fehn, chief of staff and secretary to the board of trustees at The College of New Jersey, joined Matt Maxwell, senior consultant at AGB OnBoard for a webinar focused on how to prepare your board—without knowing exactly what to prepare for.

The webinar topics included:

  • Tips for ensuring the board is prepared
  • How technology can be leveraged to establish board alignment
  • How to improve effectiveness and remain focused on strategy in the boardroom

Here, we recap some of the top takeaways from this engaging session.

Long-Term Agenda Development Is Foundational

Great board meetings don’t just happen by chance. Rather, they require preparation. A key piece of this preparation is agenda development.

According to Fehn, it’s “really important [to set an annual calendar to discuss] the kinds of topics that align with your strategy and your strategic plan.” Her recommendation is to involve committee chairs in the process so they “are really on board and they know what to anticipate for the year to come.”

When building agendas, it’s key to strike the right balance of operations and strategy. According to Fehn, boards must consider “the kinds of things that are coming up in [their] strategy and make sure that those items are aligned from the get-go.”

Fehn also stressed the importance of setting clear expectations for directors or trustees. “Be really clear about how long trustees are going to have before each meeting to prepare and what the expectation is around things like board discussion,” she said.

While providing trustees with the right information is important, Fehn pointed out that it’s easy to bog them down with materials. Helping trustees digest the information they’re given is key. “There are a couple ways we’ve done that,” Fehn explained. “One is to provide them with a cover memo. We try not to make it any more than one page. But it really has helped to focus them on that board discussion so that they know what we’re looking to get out of the time.”

Fostering Trustee Engagement Is an Ongoing Effort

Engaged board members are better equipped to keep pace with change—and help the organization navigate change. While board engagement starts at orientation, it shouldn’t stop there. Directors must commit to continuous learning.

“The landscape is changing,” Fehn said. “It’s changed tremendously over the last few years, and that’ll continue. [Trustees’] education does not begin and end with orientation.”

Meeting engagement is important. However, board members should also seek out meaningful opportunities to engage with stakeholders. For example, The College of New Jersey hosts an event called “Celebration of Student Achievement” where students present their work. This is an opportunity for trustees to engage with faculty and learn from students. “As part of ongoing orientation and continuing education, it’s really important to build how [trustees] engage with students and faculty,” Fehn said.

To support this effort, it is wise to provide trustees with some guidance on which engagement opportunities are the best fit. “Suggest where their attention will be best served,” Fehn said. “You will benefit not just your board but the institution because you’ll be able to divide and conquer a bit in terms of who’s attending what.”

Another practice of The College of New Jersey is to provide trustees with opportunities for

discussions on interdisciplinary topics. “These are topics that are going to impact our board,” Fehn explained. One example is student mental health. The board [members are] provided with articles related to the topic, along with a list of questions to guide their reading. “That’s a really good opportunity to focus them on a critical topic, guiding how you want them to look at that topic through the particular lens of your institution,” Fehn added. “And then it’s really key to make sure your committee chair is ready to facilitate the conversation on that topic.”

Technology Plays an Important Role in Board Alignment

Some boards continue to use paper-based board books. Others create digital documents—and distribute them through email. A better approach is to use a dedicated board portal that serves as a “single point of truth.”

Fehn’s advice is to “use the portal to best support your trustees’ needs and your needs as an admin.” She warns, however, against overloading board members with too much material. “It’s really easy for institutions to put too much information in a portal,” she noted. [Board members] will see the number of pages and it can be a scary thing. We need to help them digest the information by giving them context.”

Fehn also explained that just because a board can use technology doesn’t mean it should. For example, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, all board meetings were conducted via Zoom. However, this is no longer the case. “Moving forward, we have strategically decided how we’re going to bring our trustees together. We’re going to hold those meetings on the campus as much as we possibly can.”

Committee meetings, on the other hand, are still conducted via video conference. ”During the COVID-19 pandemic, we realized that for committee meetings, it is much more effective and efficient to use Zoom,” Fehn said.

At the end of the day, each board is different and has unique needs. Boards must use technology in the way that works best for them. “It’s really about using the technology how it best serves your board and your institution—not necessarily how the web designers designed it,” Fehn concluded.

Would you like to learn how board portal technology can empower you to prepare, organize, and run better meetings for your board and committees? Schedule an AGB OnBoard live demo today by filling out the form on this page.

Matt Maxwell is the senior consultant at AGB OnBoard.

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