Governance - are your meetings effective?

31 March 2016

For a governor, time is a scarce resource and a significant proportion of it will be spent in board meetings. Therefore, it is critical that they are well-timed, effective and focus on the critical issues.

Far too often, a board can attract highly skilled and experienced individuals, but a bland or ill-thought out agenda, or poor chairing of the meeting itself, does not fully utilise those qualities. The way in which board meetings are run is a common complaint by governors about their own schools. Good meetings should leave governors feeling fully engaged in their most significant time commitment - the meetings. Creating an engaging agenda is fundamental but so is going beyond the humdrum policy and process of meetings in order to drive the strategy of the school.

What’s on your agenda?

Governors are typically busy people and providing sufficient notice of meetings contributes to achieving a good attendance record. A well-run board will have a rolling programme of meetings at least twelve months ahead. Consideration also needs to be given to the frequency of board meetings, which can occur from as infrequently as twice a year to as often as twice per term; it will be dependent on the size and complexity of the school as well as whether additional work is conducted through sub committees or working parties.

The best time of day to hold meetings will also need to be carefully considered. This can be a challenge as the preference for staff to meet during normal office hours can often contrast with governors who may themselves be in employment elsewhere. Start times can be varied from meeting to meeting if a compromise is needed or, alternatively, consider using technology such as video or telephone conferencing. Such technology can be useful if timely decisions are required or to reduce the costs and time of travel although caution should be exercised as meetings can only be held in this manner if permitted by the organisation’s governing document.

Running out of time for the real work of the board

Determining the suitable amount of time required to complete each meeting is a sound governance principle. New governors can successfully be introduced to existing governors immediately prior to a board meeting (with refreshments or at an alternative social gathering). This has the benefit in getting the new governor to integrate and the group to work better as a team during their precious meeting time.

The agenda itself should be informative to provide governors with the insight they require to be effective decision-makers. Many organisations benefit from employing a consent agenda, which combines routine committee reports, minutes and other non-controversial items as one agenda item on the basis that they do not require discussion or independent action. These items are presented to the board in a single motion allowing any trustee to request that a specific item be moved to the full agenda for individual attention. The majority of the meeting can then be devoted to strategic thought, decision-making and actions. Organising meetings in this way is beneficial because it streamlines them and allows the focus to be on strategic and leadership issues. In order to operate a consent agenda effectively documentation must be provided in good time prior to any meeting to allow governors to give sufficient care and attention to the information.

Although a basic consideration, each school will need to consider the practicalities in providing board papers electronically or printing and posting. If going down the electronic route there needs to be 100 per cent commitment to adopting if the benefits, such as reduced costs, are likely to be realised. The use of electronic formats should always be when there can be no confusion as to which elements of the electronic documents form part of the official papers. Many board meetings have suffered time-wasting issues with board papers being printed (usually at home) in black and white when, in fact, colour was required in order to provide a full understanding; or because spreadsheets with multiple worksheets have not then been completely printed.

If you would to discuss any of the points further, please contact Nick Sladden, or your usual RSM adviser.

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