Part 1 in a series on Effective Board Communication

Boards guide corporate, nonprofit, association, advisory, and governmental organizations. Working together, board members provide strategic vision and oversight of management’s strategy and performance.

If you’re the board chair, in addition to your job as a board member, you have many other responsibilities.

  • You play a key role in the board’s productivity.
  • You serve as a liaison between board and staff.
  • You may be called upon to be the spokesperson or voice of the organization.

It’s a tough role, and it requires the full gamut of skills in oral and written communication, including persuasion, one-on-one communication, managing group dynamics, and interpreting and using nonverbal communication.

There are four critical communication tasks for board chairs that require strong skills in each of these areas. If you focus on these tasks, you can make a significant contribution to the organization you lead.

Encourage Personal Relationships

Often boards are a group of strangers who meet once a month. It’s hard to be effective as a group if board members don’t understand each individual’s point of view – and trust each other. Even routine board actions are more effective if personal relationships are strong. And, if your board faces a difficult issue or a crisis, having good relationships in place in advance will help you better navigate those issues.

As the board chair, you can start by modeling good relationship skills. Get to know each of your board members one-on-one, and create opportunities for them to get to know each other. Use new member orientation to familiarize new board members with the the group process and culture. Introduce new board members to others in a social setting where they can spend time together. Schedule unstructured time before or after meetings for networking and conversation.

You need to take this step even with difficult board members or those you don’t like. If you can understand that person better and get to the heart of their world view, you may be able to understand why they have been so challenging in board meetings. It’s easier to have a productive conversation with someone you know on a personal level – and harder for that person to be rude or dismissive as you lead meetings.

You also need a personal relationship with the organization’s CEO, and the rest of the management team. Take care that your relationship is not so friendly that you can’t be objective when it comes time to review the CEO’s performance, and don’t use those personal relationships to micromanage the staff. With those caveats, good personal relationships will make both of your jobs easier and help the organization be more effective.

Make sure you, and the board, are prepared for every meeting

As board chair, you need to work with the organization’s CEO to prepare agendas that deliver action.  This can include scheduling time for strategic planning, or taking a “deep dive” into an issue where you need to explore a topic more thoroughly. If you take time at the end of each meeting to ask board members what’s important to them, you can incorporate those thoughts into future agendas.

For most agenda items, you’ll need to work with staff to provide background material. Your role as board chair is to ensure that meeting materials arrive in advance; at least a week before the meeting. Board members will then have time to study the materials, think about the topics, and meet their fiduciary responsibility by reviewing financial reports carefully. Provide a short summary of each topic on the agenda, and make it clear which items have supporting documents.

Preparing a good board packet in advance gives you the opportunity to “socialize” complex or difficult issues with board members. Call board members and ask their thoughts – do they need more information to make an informed decision? How are they leaning on the issue? This is a great opportunity to use your active listening skills – checking for understanding and asking clarifying questions. If you discover through conversations with board members that there are too many questions, or strong differences of opinion, you may want to pull the item off the agenda.  You can work with staff to gather more information or assign the issue to a subcommittee, making sure that board members with strong views have the opportunity to participate.

If your organization is governed by rules of parliamentary procedure, make sure your board members understand the basics – in advance. One important rule is the requirement that discussion of a topic requires a motion and a second. If only one board member wants to bring up an issue, his or her motion “dies for lack of a second.” Boards often extend the courtesy of a second to a fellow board member when no one else wants to discuss the topic, but restricting discussion according to the rules can help the board focus on the most critical issues.

Encourage Vigorous Debate

Once the meeting starts, your role as board chair is to ensure the meeting runs smoothly, and that the board meets its duty to understand issues and deliberate thoughtfully. You can do this by following parliamentary procedure consistently, listening carefully, and watching for nonverbal cues. Is one board member monopolizing the conversation? You can thank them for their views and ask for other thoughts. Does a board member disagree with a point – shaking their head or rolling their eyes? Make sure that member gets a chance to speak.

Each board member brings different life experience, skills, and viewpoints to the organization. As board chair, you need to take advantage of board member strengths. If you have board members who rarely speak, take time to engage them in important issues.  Partway through the discussion, stop and ask a specific question about the issue that requires more than a “yes or no” answer. You can use information you learned in your pre-meetings with individual board members to ask questions that illuminate areas of agreement – or disagreement – if discussion stalls.

If the conversation gets too heated and the meeting is no longer productive, call a break. Let everyone cool off, then use the break to talk to individual board members about what it might take to reach a conclusion. That might be summarizing the existing points of agreement and disagreement, tabling the topic until you can get more information, or assigning the issue to a subcommittee. Make sure you are modeling the right behavior in a tense discussion – listening carefully, using neutral body language, and making eye contact. Don’t allow personal attacks – reframe the discussion around the issue, not individual personalities.

Define Communications Roles

The board’s role in strategy doesn’t stop with operations and finance. As board chair, you should work with the CEO and other board members to develop a communications strategy for the organization, including who the organization needs to communicate with and how.

Most organizations can’t do their work in secret; at some point they need to communicate with stakeholders including clients, donors, regulators, and employees. Board members each have a different network of relationships in a community and/or industry that can be useful to the organization. Use a strategy meeting to map out those relationships.

When developing your communications strategy, agree on key messages that flow from the organization’s mission, the board’s vision, and the operational strategy. Once you identify three or four key messages, work with the staff to gather a simple set of supporting data and facts that each board member can have at their fingertips when they have the chance to talk about the organization – formally or informally.

Often the role of the board of directors in communications is not clear. In your communications strategy, clearly define the role of the board chair and individual board members so you stay on the same page. Board members who speak on behalf of the board or the organization without a communications plan or agreed-upon key messages can be counterproductive. As chair, if a board member speaks out of turn, you must take the difficult step to counsel them.

Good communication is essential

Your board members look to you to make their board service meaningful and use their time and talents efficiently. When you use good communication skills to be a more effective board chair, you are making a significant contribution to the success of your organization.