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Francis Wade The answer to those frustrating board meetings

You are a board member who cares. Unlike others, you are a regular feature at meetings, contributing actively while making a difference.

However, sometimes you just sit quietly, wondering if your head is about to explode. Why? The discussion has drifted into the weeds – minutiae. And then further micro-minutiae. Why?

The topic at hand may be juicy, and even titillating, but you know better. It’s best to leave these low-level issues to middle-managers who are hired for specific functions. Your colleagues on the board should be in the business of holding them to account, not doing their thinking for them.

An hour or two later, you are left shaking your head in disbelief. Lots of talk, but you don’t think the needle has moved even a bit. There are far better things you could be doing.

How should you tackle the entire issue before your frustration gets to the point where you want to quit?

The fact is a board member’s attention is a scarce resource. Most members have other important jobs and obligations, and as such, they need to engage in the highest leverage conversations possible.

Consequently, the discussions you take part in should be the most difficult. The problems tackled should be the most intractable. If the conversation seems to jump from one topic to another, with random bits of advice on offer, take this as a symptom that something is wrong.

However, this isn’t a matter of mal-intent. Your board’s members are well-intentioned. They are also smart and experienced, able to give sound advice on a wider range of topics than most individual executives.

Unfortunately, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. If board meetings feel like coaching sessions where a lot of tips are being thrown around, consider a hard reset.

Perhaps each meeting should feature prime opportunities to make a tiny handful of major decisions. In this context, a high-quality meeting has a high “big-to-small” decision ratio. But how can you achieve this?

Force big decisions

Some board members think that making big decisions means being available when COVID-sized emergencies pop up. These disruptions can’t be predicted and cause boards to immediately swing into action.

But how can boards routinely force executives to bring such decisions for consideration? Here is an idea: demand that your executives create long-term plans.

The math is simple. When executives produce short-term plans they will, by definition, be incremental. That’s the motivation for my Sunday Gleaner column from May 2022 –a ‘Five-Year Plans Aren’t Strategic. They’re Dangerous’.

By contrast, consider Kennedy’s 1961 lunar challenge. The resulting moonshot “forced” the creation of the Apollo program plus a host of other innovations in thermal blankets, camera technology and artificial limbs. These all had to be invented to bring men safely home from another planet.

If your CEO or MD hasn’t articulated a moonshot for your organisation, challenge her/him to do so. As one board member rightfully put it: “Management should be bringing stretch goals for us to either turn down or accept!”

Unfortunately, few C-suiters have been trained in this thinking. Consequently, some pronounce vague visions with no credible strategic plans. Others deny the need for big result planning altogether. A few try to redefine five-year plans as “long term”.

None of these strategies work, and as a savvy board member, you should see right through them. Instead, you want to be part of game-changing commitments. These transform industries, inspire staff, and lift Jamaican companies to new levels of performance.

Otherwise, why bother to join a board?

Engage better minds

While board members may desire the opportunity to make big decisions, average C-suiters may not be ready to offer them. After all, managers promoted them primarily on their ability to produce short-term results.

To them, the idea of approaching a board with a BHAG or big, hairy, audacious goal set over a 15-30 year horizon feels crazy. And too much of a risk.

But it’s also the right approach. As a board member, you want to be stretched to your limits.

In fact, you are available to examine the hypotheses underlying a fresh strategy. This means looking at the assumptions, ensuring that plans are credible, and assessing the end-game. This is how you raise the bar on the discussion and give the plans set by the management team a rigorous, outside test.

You and your fellow board members represent some of the best minds in your industry. As you repeat this focused process, game-changing results will become a matter of design, rather than luck.

Instead, meetings can be transformed into inspirational achievements that take the frustration out of regular board meetings.

Francis Wade is a management consultant and author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity. To search past columns on productivity, strategy and business processes, or give feedback, email:

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