Five good habits for board meetings

I have the good luck to be able to go to loads of different board meetings. Each one has its own style, reflecting the organization and the industry or profession it represents. (If you want to freak out a lot of people at once, stand on a chair in a room full of risk managers. I wouldn’t recommend it, though, really.)

Who’s got good habits?

The great thing is, I get to see a lot of fantastic ideas in practice. Here are five good habits for board meetings, which I thought I’d share. Which of them might work for your meeting?

1. Put together a board workplan.

Surprisingly, lots of boards don’t do this. It’s not complicated; you just lay out the board meetings for the year, and schedule the agenda items you know are coming up for each meeting. Setting the budget, appointing the auditor, debriefing the conference are all things which can expect at certain meetings.

Then you can look at project work that’s underway, from staff or from committees, and add them – when will you see the new finance policies? When will you be evaluating the decision to expand your membership categories? When is your new communications strategy coming forward?

A board workplan can also help you make sure that important but often-overlooked, or easily-postponed activities actually take place – the Chief Staff Officer performance review is a good example of this.

2. Agree on – and reinforce – how the board will operate.

Some boards create a set of ground rules as an agreement among the board members about how their meetings will operate. What kinds of rules? They might include these kinds of things:

  • Everyone comes prepared to the meetings – read the documents sent in advance, and be prepared to ask questions and make decisions.
  • We start on time, including after breaks.
  • No web surfing during meetings
  • One conversation at a time; no sidebars
  • Don’t be redundant; if something has been said, there’s no need to repeat it just to add your voice.
  • Discussions are confidential within the meeting.
  • Once decisions are made, the board members all support it, no matter how they personally voted.

Whatever the ground rules your board agrees on – and maybe you already have some – reviewing them prior to the meeting gives everyone license – and language – to remind each other to follow them, which helps create the desired board culture. They also have to be part of the discussion at your board orientation, or else they will just be another forgotten document.

3. Adjust your meeting start and end times to suit participants.

Have you had a lot of people fly in from one time zone to another? Why have a meeting start at 8 AM in Montreal or New York, when people flew in the day before from Vancouver or LA (or Hong Kong or Sydney or Cairo)? Could you possibly shift the meeting just a bit so that people from all time zones can be alert?

Or, if you have a group who are used to early start times – surgeons, foresters – why make them wait until 9 AM, when some of them may feel like they’re halfway through their day?

4. Set your agenda based on the group’s energy.

Set the agenda based on the what the topic will require from the group, not just according to habit.

Big decisions are hard to make when a group is tired. Can you discuss something one day, and then sleep on it before the decision is required? Can you organize your agenda so that the serious issues are discussed when the group is refreshed, and you save the less taxing stuff for the lower-energy parts of the day?

If you have a board that meets sometimes by conference call and sometimes in person, use the calls for more workaday issues, and save the really meaty debates for the in-person meetings.

5. Stand up once an hour!

One of my clients has someone set an alarm for each hour, and when it pings, we all just stand up, without stopping the conversation. Everyone gets a bit of a stretch, and then sits down again when they’re ready.

Well, I should now say that two of my clients do this. Because as soon as I shared it at someone else’s board meeting, a board member just set their phone for an hour, and now they do it too!

What are your good board habits that you’d like to share?

And if you’d like to discuss an opportunity for me to come to your board meeting, perhaps to help you develop strategy, please get in touch.

Contact us at or call 416-737-3935 to discuss how we might be able to help.


We offer resources to help leaders of associations and other not-for-profits think about their approach to strategy and governance, from various perspectives.