I’m a people person, and I prefer my people… in person. I’m also not the most technologically adroit guy.
So it was a pleasant surprise to find that most of the nonprofit board meetings I’ve participated in lately have been remarkably effective – arguably, better than they would have been in person.
The reasons for these excellent Zoom board meetings? I’m still trying to sort it all out, but I think there are four factors: a) the times, b) the time, c) (ironically) the limitations of the technology, and d) the directive leadership.
First, the times.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made even the most casual board member aware that this is a perilous moment for nonprofits. If certain board members have occasionally wondered about the value of attending meetings, they’re not wondering now. They know that board meetings are important. Board meeting discussions are no longer about simply balancing the budget or moving to a new office or selling the last few tables at the gala. No: They’re about keeping the organization alive into 2021 and beyond. Because the stakes are high, board members are arriving at meetings on time and prepared. They know the meetings are important. They’ve done the reading in advance. They’ve been thinking about the issues. They’re engaged.
Perhaps even more importantly, the people responsible for setting the agenda – the CEO and the board chair – are doing what they should always do with board meetings: carefully build the agenda so that most of the time is reserved for discussion of vital strategic issues and decisions. The chief executive and chair, with the help of top staff and the board officers, have done the critical advance work, sorted out the key choices to consider, and provided the board with the information they need in advance of the meeting.
I’ve written before about the best ways to structure an engaging board meeting. Organizations should not be wasting meeting time hearing regurgitations of committee reports that should already have been sent to attendees. Organizations should rely on a consent agenda to dispatch with routine duties, and they should reserve the bulk of the meeting time for critical strategic discussions. Now that every nonprofit has urgent strategic issues and existential threats staring them in the face, they seem to be structuring their meetings in just the right way, creating agendas so that the meetings will be effective, efficient, and thoughtful – and focused on the big issues.
Second, the time.
Zoom meetings have a quicker expiration date than in-person meetings. Remote meetings can be exhausting, and people struggle to stare at the screen for very long.
Organizational leaders recognize this and are shortening the length of meetings. Board meetings that might have been scheduled for two hours in person, and that regularly meandered beyond that, are now scheduled for an hour or 90 minutes at the most, and the meetings seem to be ending on time. People realize that there’s no wiggle room in the schedule to accommodate their tangential observations. There’s no time for bloviation. Board members are suddenly disciplined: They know they have to control their impulses to orate and pontificate. And, from my observation, they’ve done just that.
Third, the limitations of the technology.
Zoom is pretty remarkable, but it’s not like being there. We stare at 18 or 16 or 22 faces, yes, but we don’t see the body language. Facial reactions are pixelated, smoothed out, and delayed. There are brief but noticeable unnatural pauses in the conversation. Faces freeze. The audio lags and crackles. The internet connection, as nearly all of us have been told, can be unstable. People are staring at the screen, but they don’t always seem to be staring at you, which is disconcerting. And, always, it’s distracting to see your own face, which seems… well, older than you might have imagined.
Yet I’d argue that it’s precisely because of the shortcomings of Zoom – the pauses, the lack of eye contact, the absence of body language, the glitches – that the communications are respectful and productive.
At an in-person board meeting, people invariably talk over one another. They blurt out comments or overpower the other speakers. They have side conversations with the person next to them. That doesn’t work in Zoomland – the chat feature notwithstanding. People listen to the person talking until that person is done, they raise their hands, and, when called on, they speak. They can’t leave or even look down or stare out the window without seeming to be rude. They are “there,” even though they’re not. They’re self-consciously attentive. As a result, the conversation tends to be ordered and logical. Point A leads to B leads to C. People take turns and listen in a way that they rarely do in person.
I’ll add that in the Zoom format there’s a certain leveling of some of the power dynamics. The six-foot-tall man doesn’t tower over the five-foot-tall woman. Nobody’s voice is particularly louder than anyone else’s. We’re all reduced to faces in identically sized rectangles, and we all communicate with similarly calm, electronically modulated voices. This is unnatural, of course, but it serves to keep the large, loud people in check… as this six-foot-tall exuberant man will readily admit.
Fourth, the directive leadership.
Because of all these factors, organizational leaders are putting together Zoom board meetings with a great deal of care. There are intense ongoing conversations between staff and board leadership, much more than in those long-ago days before COVID hit. The chair and CEO at most organizations have been boiling down the challenges and distilling the choices, playing out the worst-case, best-case, and most-likely scenarios, and testing options for the organization. Come board meeting time, these conversations are well-developed, tested, and focused – and the options presented to the full board are clear.
Moreover, in Zoomland the chair feels free to lead the meeting with a sense of authority. The chair starts by laying out the agenda, reiterates the choices to be made by the end of the meeting, and then leads the discussion with precision, calling on one person, and then the next, as they raise their hands. In the admittedly limited small sample size of board meetings I’ve attended in the last few weeks, I haven’t seen overbearing personalities dominating the conversation or rambling on too long. Board members aren’t speaking over one another. People are generally well-behaved, high-performing, and collaborative – even those who are prone to being disruptive, domineering, distracting, and ego-driven. The boards are reaching smart decisions, and they’re doing so with efficiency and effectiveness.
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Believe me, I’m no fan of social distancing, even while I adhere to it zealously in my day-to-day activities. I yearn for the time when I can once again work out at the Y, sit with my pals drinking coffee at the bagel shop, go to crowded theaters and birthday parties and weddings, travel, see and hug my kids, and, yes, present at conferences and lead in-person retreats and trainings. I worry deeply about the medical, economic, social, and psychological devastation from the pandemic, and I in equal parts want to be on the other side of this crisis as soon as possible and am determined to dig in and deal with the inconveniences until it’s safe to resume normal activities.
And, yes, I look forward to the return of in-person board meetings. When everyone’s in the same room, there’s more human interchange. There’s more of a sense of community. There’s more of a sense of shared purpose, celebration, and accomplishment. And… there’s food.
But on that happy day when boards can again meet in person, I hope we can draw some lessons from this unsettling time period. Meetings can be structured to be effective, focused, strategic, and efficient. We’ve always known that. Now, we’ve seen it in action. I’d like to forget nearly everything about this time we’re passing through, but let’s hang on to this notion of how to run a board meeting. We should get in the habit of running meetings the right way, even when our lives – or the lives of our organizations – don’t depend on it.
Copyright Alan Cantor 2020. All rights reserved.