How many meetings can you think of where Board members talked and talked…and talked?
Or, what about those meetings where Members debated minor matters at great length, making lengthy speeches in the process, while motions on major or significant strategic issues were passed with barely any discussion at all?
Far too often, Board meetings can descend into aimless chatter while critical issues get short shrift.
Why does this happen? There are a few key reasons:
Ego-driven Board Members
Some Board members seem filled with hubris - a sense of their own importance. “I’ve been placed on the Board of this symphony orchestra because I’m successful in business, so you should listen to my advice; I think the orchestra should play more Stockhausen.”
Does success in one domain automatically confer expertise in another? Not necessarily. Just because someone is successful in business does not mean they are qualified to weigh in on artistic or programming decisions for a symphony orchestra. Their skills may not transfer. Yet ego can cloud one’s judgement.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect
This cognitive bias refers to people overestimating their abilities in areas where they have little experience or expertise. People tend to think they are more competent than they really are. It takes a fair amount of humility and self-awareness to recognize the limits of one’s knowledge.
Some Board members may suffer from this effect - they believe their success in one area makes them an expert in all areas. In reality, an arts manager would be no more equipped to advise a successful business person on insurance than the business person would be on running an orchestra.
Lack of Role Clarity
Often, Boards lack clarity around members’ specific skills, experiences, and intended contributions. This ambiguity enables unhelpful tangents and amateur advice outside one’s lane.
To combat this, the Board Chair should clarify each member’s domain of expertise and intended role. This allows contributions to be appropriately directed and prevents mission creep. As the saying goes, you don’t know what you don’t know.
Poor Meeting Facilitation
When the Board Chair does not effectively facilitate discussion, meetings can easily go off the rails. Strong facilitation includes keeping people on topic, limiting grandstanding, and ensuring major issues get priority.
Without a firm hand on the tiller, Board meetings can devolve into endless pontification that eats up precious time. Critical matters end up getting short shrift while trivialities prompt bloviating.
Some Board members love the sound of their own voice. They will seize any tangent to make lengthy speeches and filibuster on matters outside their purview. This stems from ego and lack of self-awareness.
Meanwhile, truly important items breeze by without substantive discussion. The Chair must be willing to cut off unhelpful monologues and drive focus back to priority issues.
Not Enough Debate on Critical Matters
Ironically, Board meetings often entail endless navel-gazing about minor issues yet quick, cursory treatment of truly significant matters. People psychologically tend to focus on small, “solvable” problems rather than big, complex, scary ones.
The Chair must ensure that meaty strategic issues get the time and attention they deserve, even if it means curtailing debate elsewhere. These matters warrant substantial discussion, not a rushed rubber stamp.
Groupthink and Conformity
Boards can be prone to groupthink - a reluctance to critique or constructively challenge the status quo. This leads to a narrow Overton Window where only “acceptable” ideas get aired while anything too bold or unorthodox gets shut down.
The Chair must actively encourage dissenting views and outside-the-box thinking. Healthy debate matters, especially when tackling thorny strategic challenges.
What motivates Directors to serve on a Board? Some may simply enjoy the prestige and social opportunities. They’re not necessarily invested in governing the organisation per se.
These misaligned incentives can lead to Board meetings becoming more about individual egos and posturing rather than doing what’s best for the organisation’s mission and stakeholders.
Lack of Decisiveness
Endless theorising without clear decisions is a recipe for wheel-spinning. Some Boards get bogged down analysing issues ad nauseam without ever reaching alignment and taking action.
The Chair must synthesise dialogue into clear conclusions, call for motions, and move to a vote once appropriate debate has occurred. Otherwise meetings just become talk shops.
Some Directors can’t help but micromanage, hyper-focusing on minor operational details that should be left to management. This stems from a desire to feel important and add value.
But operational micromanagement is not the Board’s role. The Chair needs to redirect this energy towards appropriate governance matters at a strategic level.
So in summary, ineffective Board meetings often stem from problems like ego, lack of role clarity, poor facilitation, long-windedness, groupthink, misalignment, indecision, and micromanaging tendencies.
What’s the solution?
The board should clarify each member’s domain of expertise. Identify knowledge gaps. This can be done with a Board Skills Matrix.
Limit speeches and pontification; keep people focused on true priorities with clear agenda item timings. Redirect tangents firmly but diplomatically.
Actively encourage constructive debate, especially when discussing thorny strategic issues. Seek dissenting views.
Don’t let important matters fly by without substantive discussion. Confront the uncomfortable issues head-on.
Watch out for groupthink. Make it “safe” to constructively challenge the status quo when warranted.
Gain alignment on what the Board should and should not be focused on. Redirect micromanaging tendencies.
Synthesise dialogue into clear conclusions and drive for decisions rather than endless hand-wringing.
Institute term limits to prevent entrenchment and “clubby” atmosphere.
Assess team dynamics and coaching needs. Nurture theBoard as a high-performing team.
With more self-aware, disciplined, and decisively facilitated Board meetings, organisations can avoid unhelpful tangents and drive focus towards governing with wisdom and strategic insight.
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