The Un-Boring Boardroom

By: Bryan Ochalla

Important work gets done when boards convene, but endless bland presentations can lead to a disengaged board. Striking a balance between seriousness and levity can make your meetings more entertaining and productive.

"If you asked people, 'Why did you join the board?' I don't think any of them would answer, 'Because I thought the board meetings would be fun,'" says Jan Masaoka, CEO of the California Association of Nonprofits and director and editor-in-chief of a nonprofit newsletter, Blue Avocado.

It's hard to dispute that sentiment. It's also hard to argue with Alice Collier Cochran, M.Ed., author of Roberta's Rules of Order and principal of Cochran Consulting, when she says, "I don't think many people who serve on boards, if asked, would say it's a fun experience."

Who cares if board members are having fun? Some board members, for starters. That's the message experts like Cochran and Rhea Blanken, FASAE, founder and president of the management consulting firm Results Technology, Inc., are trying to spread.

For Blanken, the proof is in organizations that have trouble finding new volunteers for board seats. "Volunteers are not just going away," she says. "You're boring them to death." Cochran concurs. "As far as I'm aware, a lot of boards out there currently have vacancies, and in most cases people aren't exactly lining up to fill those seats," she says.

So as a board member, what can you do? How do you make board work appealing without ignoring the importance and seriousness of the work?

Fun Without Games

Cochran says that a dose of creativity, even levity, can make for better boards. "People need to enjoy what they're doing or they're not going to join your board or keep coming to your meetings," she says. "And the enjoyment part of that equation can look like a lot of things. It doesn't have to be frivolous, but it does need to build relationships and connections."

Susan Meier, vice president of consulting and training at BoardSource, says that injecting the board experience with a bit of humanity is crucial to creating what she calls "the social fabric of a board."

"When you build the social fabric of a board, it's an investment in developing trust in the boardroom," she says. "In order to build strong relationships [among board members], you need to have trust, and one of the best ways to do that is to help people informally get to know each other a little better and to have fun with them."

To that end, Blanken says that board facilitation and orientation sessions "have to be immersive. They have to be experiences."

Both words could be used to describe her Cookin' Up Leadership program, which brings board members into a professional kitchen and then proceeds, as her website puts it, "to intentionally reveal and address the client's organizational concerns and issues with limited resistance or confrontation and maximum enjoyment."

Why did she choose a kitchen as the setting for these sessions? "I often thought that if I could take CEOs through a professional kitchen, they'd learn a lot about leadership—because the chef is an omnipresent leader but also has to empower everyone else around him to get everything done," she says. "He can't look over every little thing."

Showing board members what's behind the proverbial curtain is similarly beneficial, she says: "The level of communication, collaboration, organization, partnership, time management, resource management, and risk taking that is required for everything to come together behind the scenes at a restaurant or conference is outstanding."

Knowing all of that, Blanken set out 12 years ago to find a way to teach those leadership lessons to executives and volunteers in an immersive and experiential way.

Cookin' Up Leadership began while Blanken herself was serving on a board—as chairman, no less. "We usually held board meetings in my house, and everybody loved my kitchen," she says. "I thought it would be boring if I did all of the cooking, so I thought, 'Let's see what happens if I put the ingredients out, tell [the other board members] what I intend the outcome to be, and then back away.'"

The half-day sessions she leads today are similar to those impromptu ones. They typically involve a board going into, for example, a hotel ballroom where a professional kitchen has been set up and making a three-course meal.

Blanken divides participants into groups based on each person's position on the board, keeping in mind the organization's mission and goals. "Whoever is the lowest guy or gal on the totem pole is named head chef," she says. "The CEO or chairman is never the head chef. They are the runners to the pantry."

Blanken shares insights with participants throughout the experience as well as during a "debrief" at the end. "It's not just a cooking class or a fun day. We talk about what they learned about themselves and their roles and their work," she says. "My job is to translate those things for them, because they won't necessarily do it themselves."

The Limits of Levity

Of course, bringing a lighthearted approach to meetings requires some care. "Whenever anyone decides, 'Let's inject some fun' [into these kinds of situations], they usually do a terrible job of it," says Masaoka. Another reason she's skeptical of adding levity is that after the "fun part," many people think they're under no particular obligation to make the rest of the meeting interesting.

She's not alone. Even those in favor of introducing creativity and levity into board meetings say there are limits. Blanken says that such situations "shouldn't be airy-fairy. They also shouldn't be about singing 'Kumbaya' or passing around a talking stick. This is serious stuff." Cochran says she's "not much of a fan of this kind of thing if it doesn't have a purpose. So, it shouldn't look like a game, in my opinion, and it shouldn't be called a game."

Ann Macfarlane, PRP, CAE, an owner and principal at Jurassic Parliament, says she wants to see energy in board meetings and training sessions, "but I don't like it when people start a meeting by saying something like, 'Let's all talk about what color you'd be.' It has to be congruent to me."

Jurassic Parliament exemplifies that balance between levity and seriousness, since its purpose is to clarify the details of parliamentary procedure—Robert's Rules of Order in particular—with the help of plastic toy dinosaurs. Macfarlane, a former diplomat with the U.S. Department of State and a Russian translator, started the company in 2000. (She joined forces with ERGA Association Management Services' Andrew Estep, CAE, in 2008.)

Macfarlane conceived the idea shortly after she became president-elect of the American Translators Association in 1997. "I decided I had to learn Robert's Rules of Order so I wouldn't look dumb," she says. "Of course, [reading through] it was horrible."

She kept at it, though, and eventually concluded that there was a core to Robert's that was worth internalizing and understanding. "That's when I started trying to figure out a way to show [the association's board members] some of the stuff I was learning," Macfarlane says. Specifically, she wanted to show them that motions aren't just words. Once made, they have to be disposed of, not abandoned.

She came up with a way of doing that after tripping over one of her son's dinosaur toys. "Jurassic Park was popular at the time," she says, "and that toy prompted me to think that dinosaurs could be used to show the movement of a motion."

Jurassic Parliament's system attaches a dinosaur to each "piece" of the motion process. Tyrannosaurus rex represents the main motion, for instance, while Dimetrodon represents an amendment and Apatosaurus represents a secondary amendment. During their in-person training sessions, Macfarlane and Estep place the dinosaurs, along with a number of others, in a line and use them to show participants how, say, Dimetrodon blocks the forward progress of T. rex and, as a result, how a board has to vote on an amendment before the main motion can move forward.

The point, Macfarlane says, is "to help people see that there's a pattern to all of this."

Is the experience enjoyable? Undoubtedly, especially compared to flipping through the 800-odd pages of the latest version of Robert's Rules of Order. But providing enjoyment isn't Jurassic Parliament's goal.

Macfarlane recalls a bit of advice her husband once shared with her. "He told me, 'Don't tell people it's about dinosaurs, and don't tell them it's about rules. It's neither of those things; it's about human interaction and how we deal with each other in a principled and effective way.'"

There are plenty of ways a board can brighten up its meetings, but Meier's main piece of advice to association boards that want to make their meetings more fun or creative is "to make sure the time is spent well. You have to find a balance between the fun and the relationship building and the trust building and the meatier, more important issues that the board has to deal with."

What you don't want to happen, Meier says, is for board members to spend, say, the first hour chatting and getting to know each other and then spend just an hour on the rest of the meeting. The most positive result of such situation, she says, is that "people will start showing up an hour late."

So, she says, "you have to strike a balance, so people enjoy serving on your board and enjoy being together, while also working on making a difference and having an impact on your association's mission."

You can have fun and be creative, Meier says, "but you have to go somewhere with it."

Says Masaoka: "I'm a fan of things like this that add content and that are genuinely compelling and that make use of the expertise and the knowledge in the room, as opposed to doing something completely artificial that reminds you of a bridal shower game. Spare me!"

Bryan Ochalla is a freelance writer based in Seattle. Email: [email protected]

Four Good Icebreakers

Here are a few ideas to try if you're looking to liven up your next meeting:

1. Begin by breaking bread. "I think board meetings should be a bit more like movies, which show previews beforehand to ease people into the feature," says Alice Collier Cochran, M.Ed., author of Roberta's Rules of Order and principal of Cochran Consulting. "Starting a board meeting with food does the same thing: It gives people a chance to get into the meeting without feeling like they're racing into it." This is especially beneficial, she says, if you're holding a meeting in an urban area, as "nobody can predict what's going to happen with traffic" in such situations.

2. Give kudos for good work. In Cochran's experience, not enough boards build time into their meetings to credit people for their hard work. "We spend so much of our time accomplishing tasks and not enough time reflecting on and acknowledging them," she says—both of which can help increase volunteers' enjoyment and engagement.

3. Open up with an open-ended question. Susan Meier, vice president of consulting and training at BoardSource, says this can be both fun and eye opening. A few questions to consider: What is the best decision we've made as a board over the past 18 months? What decision would we have made differently knowing what we know now? What do we think are our three greatest assets? What is our greatest hidden asset?

4. Start with a "seven by seven" briefing. Each meeting begins with a board member briefing colleagues about a subject she's knowledgeable about for seven minutes, followed by a seven-minute Q&A session. "We recruit board members because they know a lot about a particular topic or subject or area, yet we never get to hear them talk about those things," says Jan Masaoka, CEO of the California Association of Nonprofits and director and editor-in-chief of nonprofit newsletter Blue Avocado. An added bonus of this exercise: Not only will the rest of the board learn something from the presenter, but they'll feel more connected to her, too.

Bryan Ochalla

Bryan Ochalla is a freelance writer and editor based in Seattle.