Monday, November 3, 2014

What Happens When Non-Board Members Attend Board Meetings?

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We did something brand new at our latest Board meeting. For a while now, our Board has been organized into three task forces--each focused on one of the three strategic priorities of the organization. These have been task forces of the Board, meaning the only Board members served on them, and they have traditionally met at each of our two-day Board meetings.

The new thing we did was to open membership in these task force to non-Board members. And not just any non-Board members. We focused on two distinct groups: (1) Members of key stakeholder groups that were under-represented on the Board; and (2) Individuals who had expressed interest and who we were beginning to groom for possible Board service in the future. All told, we added about nine people, three to each task force. And since the task forces were meeting at our Board meeting, we invited all nine of them to attend the entire meeting, increasing our overall headcount by about 50% (eighteen Board members plus the nine guests).

It was a risk. A lot could have gone wrong. We wanted them to be active participants in the task force discussions. They were members of the task forces, after all. But the task forces had been insular bodies for so long there was some concern that outsiders might come in and try to turn over apple carts that the task force had spent the last few years setting right. Or perhaps worse, they might sit there silently, listening, but not comfortable inserting themselves into the long-standing work of their colleagues. In the end, as association members being invited in for the first time, what would they think of the work the Board has been doing on their behalf?

Turns out we didn't have much to worry about. I've been calling these new task force members over the last week or so, seeking their honest feedback on what they experienced at the Board meeting. And their responses have so far validated the risk we took. I have heard them respond positively to things that we have spent a lot of time developing at our Board meetings. The fact that these newcomers picked up on them, and also found them valuable, has been extremely gratifying.

What kind of things am I talking about? Well, here's a few paraphrased comments from one of these recent phone calls:

It felt like we were there to address serious issues, and more importantly, we had the time and information we needed to address them. We weren't stacked up in endless meeting after endless meeting.

Picking the right issues for discussion at the task force meetings and at the other events during the Board meeting is one of the most challenging aspects of my job. When I hear peers complaining about how their Boards seem focused on minutiae, I always ask them what kind of things they're putting on the Board's agendas. If you want your Board talking about big picture ideas, then you must put big picture ideas on their agenda. This guest validated not only that we were talking about the right things, but that we had given the task force both the time and information they needed to discuss them adequately.

The social aspects of the meeting were very important. The other members of the Board are people I respect in the industry, and having an opportunity to socialize with them was very valuable.

We're not shy about this one at our association. When we ask you to volunteer your time and talents for the organization, we want you to get something valuable out of the interaction, too. And consistently the thing that people find valuable is the time we provide for them to network and socialize with their peers. Some are competitors. Some are current business partners. Some are potential customers. But all can provide insight and intelligence in a manner that is otherwise difficult to come by.

It was a pleasant surprise to learn how capable the staff is and how ready they are to execute. I participate on a few other Boards, and too many other organizations talk about big picture goals, but don't have the resources needed to act on them.

This was perhaps the most gratifying of all. I have worked very hard over the past few years to help our Board bring our vision into closer alignment with our resources--which has meant work both to increase our resources and to narrow our vision. The dynamic that my guest has observed in other organizations is all too common, I fear, and being honest about what can be achieved, and about what changes are necessary if more is to be achieved, is difficult but necessary work. When the guest said that seeing such great alignment makes him more willing to support our organization, because he can clearly see how strategy work at the Board table translates into action at the staff level, I felt like I had just ran--and won--a marathon.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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