Brian Cavanagh CONSULTING

Making virtual boards engaging – 5 key actions

Struggling to maintain board governance and decision making during Covid 19?

Thanks to Zoom and other platforms, organisational board governance can continue unhindered by the current crisis. Yet the tech in and of itself does not solve a bigger challenge, namely, to ensure your board meeting is effective and productive. And in doing so, creates an environment that engages and involves members, encouraging curiosity and challenge in equal measure.

I have recently begun chairing the virtual board meeting of an SME, where the sector we operate in has changed beyond all recognition due to the virus. As a result, our need to be able to react and plan in a fast-changing business environment is crucial. Whilst I am an experienced chair, my lack of IT literacy makes it even more important that I designed a process that gets everyone fully engaged and leads to effective decision making.

So, I thought I would share 5 core actions that I believe provide the basis of good virtual governance.

Meeting Agenda

Set out the agenda with the most important business and strategic issues first. This concentrates energy on the key areas that require the greatest thought, challenge and debate. End the practice of “old business” and “new business” direction. Instead, allow the agenda to move from financial to strategic and operational in that order. Send out minutes and ask for agreement in advance. Do not allow energy to be distracted by over concentration on minute details.

Dashboard Reporting

Develop a dashboard reporting model. The use of the dashboard approach to key financial indicators is ideally suited for virtual board meetings. It should be accessible during board meetings to allow the board to keep up to date in real time. This “at-a-glance” approach allows the board to scan the identified key indicators for monthly and year-to-date performance to budget as well as a past year comparison. It allows for examination and inquiry. It keeps the board focused at the strategic level, yet as the same time providing enough information if a “deep dive” into financial performance is required.

Executive Summaries

Introduce reports from staff and committees via “executive summary” in one-page formats. Background information and further detail can be provided on a website and intranet. Getting boards to engage at the right level is essential for effective scrutiny and decision making. This approach focuses board minds on discussing strategic actions and the recommendations outlined. In my experience it cuts the time spent concentrating on detail and allows greater discussion and interrogation of options- all of which often leads to better decision making.

Strategic Dialogue

Once business oversight has been completed – and that is where the dashboard and executive summaries become valuable, it creates the space for the board to focus on a significant strategic issue. This should be highlighted in advance and a substantial time set aside for discussion and dialogue. For example, this could include views on relevance of the strategy, alternative options, as well as tactics, timing and allocation of resources. The chairing of this part of the agenda needs to be generative – in that is looks to start a dialogue in which the whole board brings its skill and views to bear. The purpose is to focus on the creation of ideas and the development of new/revised strategies. Time saved from earlier in the agenda allows for an expansive dialogue, in which the added value of members perspectives is critical to re-pivoting or re-purposing the organisation.

Immediate Assessment

One of the things that I have found virtual board meetings seem to have reduced is the unnecessary and trivial chatter than sometimes seeps into less disciplined meetings. I don’t know whether it is the greater concentration required to adapt to working on a virtual platform, but from my experience, the meetings have become sharper and more focused.

And good to find out, is to survey each board member at the end of each meeting. I suggest three simple questions, are you leaving the meeting confident in the performance of the board, did you feel you were able to participate and were listened to, would you change anything for future meetings?

As virtual governance is going to become more of a feature after Covid, I would be interested to hear about your experiences.What do you think makes a good virtual board meeting?