There's no better source of advice than an expert in the field.
With that philosophy in mind, we interviewed Nicola Reynolds, Board Secretary at Turn2Us, a national charity in the UK that provides financial support to help people who have fallen on hard times get back on track.
We talked about what she has learned during her time as a board secretary, how she handles some of the more challenging aspects of the job, and much more.
It was great to speak to Nicola because she herself wasn’t aware that “Board Secretary” was a possible career path until she took on the role herself.
“I kind of came into it by accident… my work history was more admin, business management, executive support. Basically, I was looking for a bit of a change of direction, I wanted a bit more of a challenge.”
Someone proposed the idea of board secretary work to her and once she started looking into it, it sounded quite interesting.
She saw the opening at Turn2Us, applied on the spur of the moment and got the position. Now she’s coming up on one year as Board Secretary, so it was great to get her insight into what it takes to really do the job well.
“I think some people see it as a pretty junior role, but when it’s done properly it’s actually really really critical. It’s actually the glue that holds everything together.”
Without a doubt, Nicola dedicates the biggest chunk of her time making sure that board and committee meetings happen when they need to happen and that everything runs smoothly. After almost a year of running meetings at Turn2Us, her top piece of advice for a board secretary is to be proactive.
Being proactive in the sense that as board secretary, you hold a senior role when it comes to meetings and therefore you need to speak up and lead. It goes hand in hand with her second piece of advice – forming positive relationships with board members, especially meeting chairs. You’re there to help them do their job as best they can, so you really need to be working as a team.
Nicola has noticed what a big difference it’s made since her first meeting a year ago, having nurtured these relationships and better understanding how each person likes to work. She has worked out how best to communicate with people and how to get the best out of them in their role on the board – which leads to better results for everyone.
Two tasks that always fall to the board secretary are preparing agendas and taking meeting minutes. Seemingly simple at first glance but incredibly important and nuanced. Nicola had some excellent insight into how best to approach both tasks from a senior leadership perspective.
Writing up an agenda isn’t something you do the day before the meeting and it takes more than knowing what urgent topics need to be talked about (although that’s part of it too).
Meeting agendas need to be written thinking about the big picture. As board secretary, you need to be thinking about all the different timetables and deadlines and when other meetings are happening. You are solely responsible for knowing what needs to be raised at what time in order for things to run smoothly.
Once again, Nicola recommends being proactive when it comes to writing agendas:
“Trustees, they have a lot of other things going on… they don’t always remember what’s going on here. Sometimes the Chair won’t remember what needs to go on the agenda. It really falls on the board secretary to have in their mind what needs to be on there… then making the effort to sit down with the Chair right at the start and go through what needs to be discussed and any potential issues they might need to be aware of… it makes meetings a lot smoother if they have had a good briefing.”
“Everyone’s got their own idea about how it should be done, everyone’s got their own requirements. I notice that a lot of times people are too detailed, afraid of leaving things out. But you’ve got to strike the balance between the correct amount of detail and making them readable – if they’re like a novel, no one is going to read them.”
It’s no easy task processing all of that information and summarising it on the fly. Nicola’s strategy is to listen carefully and as one topic of discussion wraps up, she writes a quick summary, focusing on the decisions made.
As she says, what minutes come down to are “decisions made at the meetings and the explanations behind the decisions – that’s it.”
And if there’s any doubt?
If you, as board secretary, aren’t sure what the decision or action to be taken is following a discussion, chances are there are a lot of other people in the room who aren’t either. So before moving onto the next agenda item, she’ll bring the group back to focus on what is the concrete action or decision. It doesn’t just help her write up minutes – it helps ensure they are all actually on the same page.
After the meeting, she sits down to review all of her notes, restructure and reorganise, compare with the board papers and the agenda and then send the draft over to the Chair. Usually it’s all good to go, but when it’s not that’s when you realise how important minutes really are.
What if you heard or understood something differently than the Chair?
Again, chances are someone else did too.
That something you can also work with the Chair to improve. If the meeting Chair gets in the habit of summarising discussions and reviewing decisions during the meeting – it helps the minute taker, but everyone else too. It’s all too common that people walk away from the same conversation with different points of view. Minutes are a trusted safeguard, but if everyone is proactive about it during the actual meeting, even better.
Tools and tech
Last we talked briefly about what practical tools help Nicola do her job more effectively.
“That’s one of the challenges. Trying to find a tool that works. Right now I just use Outlook, and it’s not bad… it’s better than nothing. But I know there are a lot of proprietary tools out there. Ideally, I’d like something where I can keep everything in one place.”
Final advice for fellow board secretaries:
“Prioritise forming relationships – particularly with board chairs and subcommittee chairs. Engage with them, be proactive, show them what you can do. Don’t be shy. You have the right to speak up – if a meeting isn’t being run well, you have the right to talk to the Chair about it. Be assertive. Be proud of your profession.”