When Boards Meet Too Often

by Nov 19, 2021Get on Board

While there is no proven formula for how often boards of directors should meet, most often I have counselled boards to meet less frequently, rarely have I recommended a board meet more often. Too frequent board meetings occur more commonly with not-for-profit boards than with public and private sector boards. This is ironic, as the directors are typically volunteers and not financially compensated for their attendance at board meetings. If a large, multi-national organization such as an insurance company or a technology giant can operate effectively with four board meetings per year, so can your board.

Here are some of the benefits of meeting less often:

POTENTIALLY IMPROVED ATTENDANCE

When directors are not required to meet as frequently, attendance often improves. This is because the demands are less, and because the amount of content they will miss is greater when meetings are less frequent.

IMPROVED DECISION MAKING

When boards are meeting every month to six weeks, decisions are deferred far too often. Some directors like more time than others to weigh the benefits and risks of a decision. Board or committee chairs may agree to postpone decisions to the next meeting. This can be frustrating for management who are seeking approval before taking action. It can also be quite frustrating for fellow directors who do not relish the Groundhog Day experience of re-hashing the same items. At a minimum, it is an ineffective and inefficient way to operate a board.

IMPROVED BOARD MATERIALS

With less frequent meetings, board materials must provide the appropriate data to enable good governance, active discussion, and a timely decision. Well-prepared board materials ensure that the directors who want to carefully weigh options are able to do so.

BETTER GOVERNANCE

When boards meet too frequently, they often fall into operational mode, seeking tactical information from management, and offering their opinions on items that are not appropriately in their purview. This is more often an issue with not-for-profit boards, but happens with corporate boards as well. Quarterly meetings with well- prepared agendas and a governance lens make a greater, more positive impact.

If you determine your board is meeting too frequently, you may need to take a measured approach in reducing the meeting frequency. To reduce from ten to four meetings per year in one fell swoop may make some directors quite anxious. Start by reducing from ten to seven or from eight to six. Discuss among the executive committee first, if you have one, or among the committee chairs and board chair and vice-chair. Agree on the frequency and the appropriate adjustments to the agendas. Develop a communication plan for other directors and management, then move forward and enjoy the newfound free time and more effective and efficient meetings.

Leaders worldwide are thinking, planning, and asking themselves a big question. Where will the workforce be located post-pandemic? Will people be back in the office, work from home, or both?  Choosing an option and moving on has great appeal, but what if leaders used this transition time to experiment, evolve, and learn? Not only could they know more about their employees, which is reason enough, but they might also design options that aren’t obvious now.

The Washington Post reported that the Biden administration has made it easier for 2.1 million federal workers to continue working from home. Pre-pandemic, only 3 percent of the federal workforce was located remotely on a full-time basis, but during the pandemic, that number ballooned to 59 percent. Federal government employees gave “flexibility high marks in the workforce survey, and many managers concluded that productivity didn’t suffer.” The same for corporations. A survey of 800 companies revealed that productivity was not diminished by remote work, and some reported improvements.

Leaders, quite rightly, feel pressure to decide where people should work is real, but location isn’t the only factor leaders need to think about. Autonomy and flexibility are essential for motivation and creativity, but so is connection. These needs are not met solely by allowing people to choose location, nor are they met by implementing simple tactics, like virtual happy hours. 

Three things can help leaders in any organization provide an environment that will allow talented people to flourish.

First, stay abreast of trends but pay attention to people as individuals. A broad understanding of trends in the workplace is essential, no less so than economic trends. Currently, the two are tightly linked. As more companies offer remote work, people have a broader range of options. This, combined with the burgeoning demand for talent, makes it essential that leaders prioritize understanding and connecting with people as individuals. Leaders who do so build trust, and that leads to dramatic results.

Second, understand what motivates people. One senior vice-president, Mike, said, “People are coin-operated.” He couldn’t have been more wrong, and this cynical attitude interfered with his ability to lead until his boss finally forced him into retirement. Fortunately, even though many leaders don’t agree with Mike, they still rely on cursory understanding of motivation.

Leaders can get a good handle on the type of motivation that most want and need from people, intrinsic motivation. External rewards, pay and benefits, are essential and if these are fair, the rest won’t matter. But external rewards aren’t enough to fuel self-motivation; that requires flexibility, growth, and meaning. Flexibility allows people to determine how they work and perhaps was but doesn’t imply that they can independently set their objectives. Growth refers to the opportunity to learn and improve and meaning is a sense that what a person does is significant to a larger goal. Dan Pink’s book, Driveis an excellent review of the psychological research, explaining it in clear and memorable language.

Third, make experimentation and iteration routine. Leaders have the opportunity to mine the experience of a global pandemic to learn about people and themselves and to make learning and change a natural part of the work. The desire to decide on office, remote, or hybrid work models is understandable. Instead, if leaders approach it as an experiment and create feedback loops, so data flows freely, they will learn in time to make healthy change decisions, not just react to threats.

When leaders define a set of options, as valuable as that is, it can unwittingly narrow their thinking. Thinking of the post-pandemic transition as a time to experiment will enable leaders to gain tremendous knowledge, but it requires curiosity, patience, and courage to avoid consistency for its own sake. 

When a leader is vague, says one thing and does another, or shows little empathy for his or her team, people lose trust. At first, it might not be obvious that we should withdraw trust. We may be wary, but not convinced one way or the other.

How do you know if your boss can be trusted?

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Are they telling a credible story? Is it logical? Frances Frei, Harvard Business School professor says that a critical aspect of trust is logic. When a story, plan, or proposal just doesn’t hold up, trust “wobbles.”
  • Does your boss say things that stretch the truth to the point that it is not defensible?
  • Are they dismissive of questions or concerns?
  • Do they blame others for his or her decisions?

If your answers to these questions indicate a lack of trust in your boss, the first thing to do is talk to them. Express your commitment to your role (if genuine) and your concerns. If this opens up a conversation that feels honest to you, good. If you determine that the cause of your concerns was a misunderstanding on your part, that is also ok. However, if what you hear is blatantly untrue or a smoke screen, this is truly a problem and more so if your boss is totally committed to what they are telling you. A delusional leader probably can’t be helped.

At this point, you may be tempted to turn wonder into inquiry, talking with colleagues, speculating about what is causing your boss to be so misguided. You are very unlikely to influence them. What you can do instead is invest your energy in doing the things that will increase your trust in yourself.

It is disappointing when we reach the conclusion that a boss is untrustworthy. Click To Tweet

First, do the work, the hard work, to identify and articulate your distinctive value. This is about your talent, not your title. Start by answering the question: What are you great at, that you love doing, that has value to others?

Second, look for new ways to apply what you are great at, at work and elsewhere. There aren’t many better responses to feeling stuck than strengthening self-efficacy.

Third, engage with the people in your network and actively expand it. This is especially important if you have neglected professional relationships outside of your own company.

It is disappointing when we reach the conclusion that a boss is untrustworthy. It can also be tempting to try to analyze them, fix the situation, or find someone who can. If there is real danger, by all means, speak up! Most often, the danger is fomenting a culture of mistrust, low commitment, and poor performance. There are real losses in this case, but if those to whom your boss reports maintain them in their role, you may not be able to trust the organization, either.