I have a reputation as an impatient participant at meetings. After 90 minutes I find myself drifting away, looking out a window, making lists, working on my sermon. I remember a staff meeting about ten years ago where a fellow staff team member got quite cross with me for looking out the window when he spoke. I apologized but did point out that 1) I didn’t eye the window pane until the 90 minute mark and b) he usually spoke 75% of the time at our meetings, and there six of us on staff! Because I am such a talker, an extrovert, a “big mouth” people assume I will end up doing all the talking at meetings. They are usually surprised when I don’t say much at meetings, and then comes the speculation, people think I am sad or upset or angry. The sad fact is that I am bored.
But here’s the dirty little secret, I am a canary in the coal mine, I am not alone! If you think I am the only one who finds meetings that go on and on and on trying think again! And this, more than any other issue, is what confronts all those non-profits seeking Board members who are working through the day. Women and men who have worked 8-4 or 9-5 are not keen to come to a meeting that twins as a social gathering. What motivates them to join the Board is to make a difference, to feel like at the end of the day their contribution made the cause a closer reality.
Now the social connections that happen at Board meetings are important too, there is no doubt that people need to know who is sitting around the table, it helps build trust, solidarity and a team spirit. Chairs I admire have a way of asking a simple and tight question at the beginning of a meeting that draws out some response from each participant. To achieve this the Chair has to be VERY clear that the responses are limited to one sentence, but if the question is accessible, simple and sufficiently personal it can break the ice and lead to some team building.
One thing I have noticed about meetings that slip into what I call “black holes” is how an agenda item is tasked. If there is a person tasked with researching the background to the item, explaining the item so everyone can understand and be prepared to offer a suggested course of action, the meeting will move along at a good pace. But if items are placed on the agenda without any leadership connected to said item there will be looks of confusion, advice from Board members who have no first-hand knowledge of the situation, and conversation that is more about assessing the situation than trying to solve it. If this happens at too many meetings you will see the length of the meeting getting longer and longer. People will start sending their regrets and then not renewing their term of office. Even people who come to the meetings for the community piece will feel that nothing is being accomplished.
My experience with Boards that run well are: 1) they need some kind of ice breaking beginning, 2) agenda items need to be shepherded by someone responsible to lead the discussion on that item, even offer a suggested solution, 3) someone needs to remind people when they are starting to repeat themselves, that there are still more agenda items to be discussed, 4) they put important items early on the agenda so people don’t find themselves tired and cranky at the end of the meeting dealing with very significant decisions, 5) they are reminded of concrete outcomes arising from their decisions, to build momentum and give the Board a sense of accomplishment and 6) there is an option at the end of the meeting for people to stay and talk and permission to leave for those with families who have not seen their loved ones since they left for work in the morning.
In the mean time I am trying to figure out why someone who seems to never get tired and who loves to visit with people for as long as it takes and who can attend a lecture and hear a speaker for two hours can find a meeting that drags so tiring. My discernment continues.