Build a Better Board Meeting

Seven steps to a successful and non-stressful gathering of top executives

The board meeting is one of the most important and often one of the most stressful events a planner will have to tackle during the course of the year. These time-sensitive gatherings of high-powered individuals are essential for moving corporations, associations, and other organizations forward.

In order for board members to get the most out of this precious time together, each meeting element must go off without a hitch. “You have to plan and work to successfully create the structure for the business that needs to be done,” says Kathy Smith, director of meetings for the American Association of Neuromuscular & Electrodiagnostic Medicine in Rochester, MN. This means everything from site selection to security must be spot on. A/V, food, transportation, and all of the meeting’s other aspects need to be executed at the highest level, because these attendees all are VIPs who expect to be treated as such.

And, given that these are VIPs, “You have to keep a lot of personalities in check,” notes Drew Stevens, president of St. Louis, MO-based Stevens Consulting Group. “When you’re in the presence of very powerful people, there is an air of cockiness and confidence. They are the masters of the universe.”

Successful Meetings reached out to more than a dozen planners, consultants, authors, and hotel executives to get their insights into creating successful, innovative, and pain-free board meetings. Here’s their best advice:
1. Get feedback
The biggest goal of the board is to make important decisions. Encourage them to help you make yours.

Smith offers up a number of choice venues to her board before making the selection. “Throw it up to a higher authority. My process is I send out a list of possibilities and ask them to prioritize … Let them make the final decision. It’s easier to sell to membership if the board has made its own informed decision. This way it isn’t, ‘We had a horrible meeting, Kathy Smith, and it’s all your fault.’”

After the meeting, listen carefully to the feedback from everyone involved. Was there something they loved about the venue? Were there needs that were not met? What could have been improved? This information can prove invaluable as you begin to start the process anew for the next board meeting.

2. Work the technology 
We live in a connected world with software and hardware that make meeting and presenting easier than ever. Of course, that software and hardware have to actually work.

If you’re concerned, don’t be afraid to bring your own A/V experts. It may be more costly, but they know you and your requirements and are a trusted resource. If that isn’t an option, find a preferred vendor, says Jackie Foulks, corporate event planner for Bank of America in Charlotte, NC. “They know the needs of the event. Rely on them to make sure it is flawless.”

One strategy that might seem counterintuitive, yet can prove productive, is to restrict or ban technology usage. “Keep it to a limit,” says Stevens. “People are bringing PDAs, laptops, iPads … Ask attendees to put electronics aside to keep distractions down and stay in the moment. You want dialogue.” While you might not be able to enforce a gadget-free policy at your meeting, asking attendees to refrain from using them during specific periods of time or requesting a limit on use can go a long way toward encouraging productivity.

3. Allow for a little pleasure before business
We all know time is money, and often board members want to jump right in to address pressing matters. However, there is great value in letting these attendees get reacquainted before the meeting starts. 
“There is a lot of intellectual firepower in the room. You want them to talk and get engaged,” says Stevens. 

In addition to helping the board gel, it can also help get some distractions out of the way. Having a short pre-meeting social period “allows the members to catch up on families and life,” says Carol Meerschaert, director of marketing and communications for the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association, based in Fairfield, NJ. “This cuts down on the chitchat during the meeting. Serve light snacks but not a full meal and no alcohol if you want your board to be fully alert and ready  to work.”

Mike Jaffe of Jaffe Life Design, Westport, CT, agrees. “To be emotionally connected and collaborative, you have to build in some time up front to talk,” he says. “Part of the reason for being on boards is to foster networking.”

4. Pay attention to security
Armed guards and in-room paper shredders may sound like things out of a spy movie, but depending on what type of board you are serving, they may be essential. 

“Security is increasingly becoming an issue,” says Mary Boone, president of Boone Associates, in Essex, CT. “Risk management is important. Every planner should be well-versed.”

International boards often will rotate locations based on where members sit or top clients are based. Many of these sites are in large cities that are magnets for all sorts of crime. Depending on circumstances, it might even be prudent to plan escorts to and from the meeting venue. You do not want a board member to be mugged on your watch.

Security concerns also apply inside the boardroom. In this age of the mobile device, when everything can be shared in a split second, protecting confidential information has become all the more challenging, says Smith. “The biggest issue is someone using a cell phone to take a picture of a slide they don’t have permission to. Every slide we have has a copyright or rights to it. You may not photograph or record anything during the session.”

Make this clear to attendees in advance of the meeting. This could also be a convenient way to help keep mobile devices out of the boardroom. A note on the agenda that says, “Due to the confidential nature of material being presented, mobile devices with camera capabilities are not permitted in the meeting room,” could solve a multitude of problems.

There should also be a secure area for storing confidential materials before attendees get there, says Linda Henman, author of Landing in the Executive Chair and president of Town and Country, MO-based Henman Performance Group. “You need to ensure that no one has access to the board’s books, especially if it’s a publicly traded company.”

Additionally, there should be a paper shredder in the room. “It might not be something people think of, but they will appreciate it,” says Henman. Also, “encourage people not to create anything that could be subpoenaed except for the minutes you need to keep.”

5. Make the site staff your sworn allies
Having the wait staff barge in at an inopportune time is not only bad form, it can be a major problem. Yet, getting food and beverage into the room is vital. This can require some deft coordination on your part. 

“There are certain times when outsiders cannot come in,” says Henman. “There is sensitive and confidential information being presented. People needing to check the coffee pots have to be made aware of when they can and cannot come in.”

On a macro level, one way to help see that everything, including food and beverage service, goes smoothly is to “keep the sales associate involved from start to finish,” says Foulks. “You worked out your contract with them, so let them be a part of the success of the meeting. They know you as a customer, and they know your needs as opposed to other types of events.”

6. Don’t forget CSR
Corporate social responsibility can take many forms. If your company or association endeavors to be environmentally sensitive, for instance, the board meeting should reflect that. It would  be a public relations nightmare if a board was outed for having a meeting that did not live up to its company’s sustainability standards.

One effective way to go green is to source food, materials, and staff locally. It cuts down on expenses and supports the local economy. 

Another tip: Don’t use plastic water bottles, says Boone. You may have heard that piece of advice a thousand times, but the reasoning goes beyond being an environmental issue. “It looks terrible on the table when photographs are taken in these beautiful rooms. Use real glasses and water pitchers,” she suggests.

On a broader level, “Think about how you, as a company, can make a positive impact on the destination you’re going to,” says Jeffrey Adam, director of global accounts for HelmsBriscoe in Port Washington, NY. Whether it’s participating in local community service or making outright donations, “it gives the attendees and the company a good feeling and good exposure,” Adam adds.

7. Consider abandoning the boardroom
People seated around one giant wood table surrounded by mahogany walls certainly screams “board meeting.” However, planners are increasingly opting for different settings that allow for more productivity and creativity.

“While a hotel’s boardroom may seem like a natural choice, a more expansive space for collaboration and creative thinking may be needed,” says David Dvorak, vice president of catering and convention services for Starwood Hotels & Resorts. 

“Pick venues that enhance opportunities for interaction,” says Boone, who suggests environments with a lot of informal space and locations where people can sit in groups of three or four. “You need to be able to separate into smaller groups to interact around key issues.”

Jaffe says there is great benefit to “building in opportunities to go outside to lunch or to gather in a shaded area. You don’t want to be stuck in a room. Get them outdoors breathing clean air.”

On the other hand, there are boardrooms that offer a break from the norm along with the conveniences needed for these meetings. When J.W. Marriott Jr. had his executive board meeting in Florida at the Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort Golf Club and Spa, he used a room with lots of natural light to establish the right setting, says Kathy Sherrard, a senior account executive at the property. “And we can reserve a suite close to the meeting room if an executive has to step out for a call,” she adds.

With creativity and determination, you can build a board meeting that wins over all of your attendees, and ensure a productive event.