How board secretaries can create an effective agenda for board meetings

An agenda is the backbone of any board meeting. It sets the tone, helps prevent board members from getting distracted or off-track and contributes to an effective board meeting. At least, that’s if you have a great board meeting agenda. 

But a lot of board meetings take place with a not so great agenda.

The result? Long meetings, that often go off-track and are nothing close to productive. As a board secretary, you have the responsibility to create an agenda for your board’s meetings that facilitates efficiency. This guide is here to help you.

1: Make the objective clear

Every meeting should achieve the objective(s) for which the meeting was set up in the first place. Without an objective, the meeting would be unnecessary, right? Clear objectives set clear expectations. This is why you should explain the objectives of the meeting in the agenda. In this way, all the present board-members will be more focused and engaged to the meeting.

In addition to a main objective of the meeting, each board member often has a personal objective. Define these personal objectives in the agenda. You can do this for example by determining personal roles. In this way, the board members know what they are up to and can prepare themselves better for their personal goals.

2: Develop the list of participants

Once you listed the meetings’ objectives, it is time to develop the list of participants. When you are setting up a meeting agenda, it is important to consider who really needs to attend the meeting. Try to only invite the people who will have a clear contribution. For example, when the purpose of the meeting is trying to solve a problem, invite the people who will have good sources of information in order to find a solution. When people feel that the topic that is being discussed isn’t relevant to them, they will think their presence to the meeting is a waste of time. This doesn’t benefit the participation of the attendees and the effectiveness of the meeting.

3: Focus on the main topics, but leave room for relaxation and creativity

Meeting time is expensive and difficult to schedule, especially board-meeting time. That’s why the meeting should only be focused on the main topics and shouldn’t be too long. If you want the board members to be engaged to the meeting, make sure the agenda includes topics that reflect their needs. Ask the board members to suggest items to be discussed in the meeting at any rate. If someone suggests an irrelevant topic, inform him that his topic can be discussed in another meeting. When the meetings’ topics are clear to everyone, it prevents that people veer off to irrelevant topics during the meeting, which is a waste of everybody’s time. An agenda with a clear topic list is an important step to a well-structured meeting.

Besides discussing the usual topics that have to be discussed during board meetings, try to add something unique to every board meeting you organise. Make sure that all the important topics are discussed, but also leave some room for relaxation and creativity. Board meetings are very important, but that does not mean that they have to be boring. For example, you can plan short breaks in-between meeting topics, for activities that stimulate creativity, teamwork and keep the board members more engaged. No inspiration? Think about putting a short game of basketball on the agenda, plan a walk in-between meeting components or check out our toolbox for effective meetings for more inspiration. Make sure that the activities in-between meeting topics do not affect the efficiency too much, but try to find a good balance between productivity and fun.

4: List the topics as questions

A simple but effective tip is listing the topics as questions. Agenda topics are often several words framed together as a phrase. For example, ‘new staff’. This is a vague topic and leaves the members of the meeting wondering: ‘what about new staff?’. Listing a topic as a question on the agenda pushes the meeting to a solution. Instead of quoting ‘new staff’ you can ask: ‘under what conditions should our company hire new staff?’

In addition to specificity, questions ensure that members of the meeting are better prepared for the discussion. It is easier to determine a point of view and to monitor whether a discussion is off-track. When someone notices that another members’ comment is off-track, he can say something like: ‘I do not understand how your comment relates to the question we are trying to solve.’ This of course benefits to an effective meeting. By using questions, it is also easy to determine when the meeting is dismissed. To wit when all questions are answered.

5: Include a timetable

Insert a timetable in the agenda to create even more structure in the meeting. A timetable indicates exactly which topics are covered and how much time is spent on each topic. The chairman can use the timetable among other things to indicate when to transfer to the next point on the agenda. Someone other than the chairman is often responsible for leading a particular topic on the agenda. Make this person known on the agenda by putting his name next to the topic. This ensures that all the members who are responsible for leading a topic are aware and well-prepared.

6: Send the agenda in advance

Just as important as the agenda itself is sending the agenda in advance. This way all members of the meeting know what they are up to. They can read background articles if necessary, and prepare their views for each topic on the agenda well in time. When is the right time to send the agenda to your board? According to the Institute of International Finance (IIF), the best practice is to send a notice of the meeting and the agenda at least one month before the meeting. A recent study by the University of Tilburg, found that one third of directors do not receive the requisite information they need for a meeting in time to prepare sufficiently.

7: Share your meeting agenda in the cloud

Sending the agenda to your board members through email can be a great idea, however having a meeting agenda in the cloud is an even better idea. By using a board portal to share the meeting agenda, board members can easily access the agenda on all devices and at all places. Whether it’s a tablet, a smartphone or their laptop. 18% of directors typically participate in meetings by using their smartphone. A board portal provides them with attending a meeting with nothing more than just their smartphone.

Another advantage of having your meeting agenda within a board portal, is that the agenda can be easily adjusted on the spot. This does not only enable you and your board members to change the agenda before the meeting takes place, but even during the meeting. Whenever a new topic to discuss comes up while preparing for the meeting, or during the meeting, the agenda can be immediately adjusted. The use of a board portal makes your life as a board secretary a lot easier.

Every board meeting is different

When developing an agenda for your board meetings, keep in mind that every meeting is different. Using the exact same agenda for every meeting is therefore usually a bad idea. Adjust the agenda to developments within the organisation, but also use your creativity. Board meetings in particular are usually very long-winded. Having the same types of board meetings over and over become boring and predictable, not really stimulating any innovation or creativity among your board members.

A good board meeting agenda helps board members prepare early in advance, allocate time wisely and maintains a topic overview. Besides that, the best meeting agendas are the ones in which there is a good balance between productivity and fun. If you follow the guidelines described above, you will make meeting agendas that are streamlined and to the point, while at the same time keep the board members engaged and inspired.

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