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Nov 12, 2023
Posted Under: Board Development President's letter

Plenty has been written about the importance of finding “the right” communication channels between the whole board and CEO/Executive Director and the board itself. Often, we think of a few paths for this communication:

  1. Executive or board evaluation
  2. Board meetings
  3. Scheduled check-ins between the executive and the board
  4. Regular written updates

Recently, I wrote an article on executive evaluation, and I encourage you to revisit it if you and your team are struggling in this space. We also have several articles on board meetings that speak to many aspects of the meeting structure, including the role of staff. Two quick points to consider that could maximize communication in the boardroom are:

  • Recognizing that it is a board meeting, not a staff meeting. If you are the executive, ask yourself how to provide the board with enough information upfront so you are a resource and a complement to the conversation – not the only one talking. This is tricky with a board that is often used to listening and reflecting, or a board that is disengaged or unclear about its role, or a board made of new members. It can also be a challenge with a new executive. Assigning discussion leaders, using committees in advance, and setting questions in the agenda can all help this process go more smoothly.
  • Recognizing that meeting time is valuable, there is no reason to take up space with a verbal “executive report/operational update” unless it can focus on “why” rather than “what” or “how.” “Why” conversations keep the board strategic, create more space for dialog without wandering into details, and help everyone know why the topic is important to consider. “Why” conversations can also provide the landscape for other discussions on the agenda, connect the mission to emerging trends in the work, and allow for deeper or future thinking on the state of the mission, the organization, or the community. If “what” and “how” details are the norm, the first step toward a shift can be putting those details in writing and avoiding the use of valuable meeting time to talk about them – instead letting the details add background to the more important conversations. The exception to this is, of course, if the executive or committee is asking for that level of feedback – but this is rarer than you might imagine.

When it comes to the other two avenues of verbal and written communication, I am more convinced than ever that there is no “one right way.” To be heard and to receive the support each need, multiple channels must work for successful executive-to-board and/or board-to-board communication.

We all communicate differently so don’t hesitate to add your own style. That said, in general when it comes to executive-to-board or board-to-board communication, the following eight commitments will help you succeed in being seen and heard:

  1. Commit to multiple channels to ensure the greatest response. This is not to be confused with being burdensome, tiresome, or overly repetitious. The goal is to reinforce important messages and create meaningful connections.
  2. Be willing to make time for communications – both in their creation, in our consumption, and in our response, which should all be mindful and respectful.
  3. Prioritize regularity and consistency. Do this and four things happen: 1) You build trust in ways that your audience is more ready to receive the communication. 2) You lessen the chance of a communication void that can be filled with unhelpful chatter. 3) You help your team know that when you are communicating outside these regular parameters there is an urgency that requires their attention and action. 4) You can prioritize, organize, and plan your topics.
  4. Make a clear distinction between an update and a call to action. In an email, on an agenda, and in your updates, this distinction matters. Being clear about your expectation of return from your communication alleviates stress, lessens misunderstanding, and mostly ensures you are heard.
  5. Make a clear distinction between strategy and detail. There is a telling adage that “we get back what we give out,” meaning that the elevation of our communication must be at the level we want for the returning conversation. If you want to be strategic, stay strategic in your delivery. If you want operational reflection, give a lot more details.
  6. Commit to reinforcing your messages in real-life Yes, write it down but don’t expect that everyone, or maybe anyone has read it all. Real conversation builds trust and helps us understand each other.
  7. Have respect for intent. Let’s face it, sometimes we get our communication wrong. We use the wrong words. We set the wrong tone. We choose the wrong path. I do it, and I watch so many others get it wrong. Sadly, this is not the worst part – that is left to the response. The often extreme response to the board or executive quickly leaves anything that looks like respect and pounces on intention. Rather than asking for a course correction in behavior, the tendency to determine one’s intention is toxic. If we are going to commit to communication that moves the mission forward, we must separate intention from behavior. So rarely in our world are intentions up for question even when we have misstepped in our behavior and action. This is the moment to reset, regroup, reflect, and move forward respectfully.
  8. Know that teams move at the speed of trust. Take the time to find your mission connections. That is why you are communicating in the first place. There is a bond that holds you together. Focus here – first and last.

These eight over-arching approaches can then be further refined in your use of verbal and written communication. More specifically…

Verbal Connection

I am a big believer in the regular verbal check-in. This most often happens between the board chair and the executive to lay out the upcoming board meeting agenda. This can be a great use of time as it offers synergy to the issues that matter the most and focuses the agenda on areas where the board can have the most impact and the executive needs the most support. Too often this is not how agendas get formed or refined, which leads to less effective communication overall. Beyond a regular and consistent connection with the board chair, I strongly encourage some rhythm of one-on-one communication between the executive and each board member during the year. That could be semi-annual or quarterly sessions (depending on the size of the board). These could be casual in nature with the intent of building trust and hearing more about mutual connections to the mission, or they could focus on ways to engage or reflect on a specific topic. Either way, the goal is connection – not off-side decisions.

Written Connection

Email, text, team/board updates, or reports – these are all usual ways of executive-to-board communication. We recommend not just one of these but all of them – each for a different purpose. Generally, I would recommend these basic communication rules using these tools.

  • Text: Use text for immediate logistics like sharing a log-in number or for quick touch points. Do not use this tool for board discussions or complicated conversations with multiple strings.
  • Email:
    • Use email for immediate needs and information that cannot wait until a monthly communication.
    • Use email to reinforce access to other communication the board needs like the board packet, which can be attached to the meeting notice in Outlook, or something in your board portal site, or something more public on your social media channels. Your judicious use of email will help everyone know the information is urgent because it can’t wait for the monthly communication.
    • If you can, share with the board during orientation how your organization uses email. For example, I tell my board that if they are hearing from me over email, it is because I need action from them. This serves as a reminder to me to use it carefully and sparingly, and it helps bring the email into focus amidst a full inbox.
    • Maximize the subject line to say exactly what you want and when you want it. Examples include: “Respond by COB on Tuesday,” or “Read before the meeting on Friday,” or “FYI no action needed.” This can also be reiterated at the top of the email. You may have noticed more emails coming through with a yellow highlight that says “BLUF,” which stands for “Bottom Line Up Front” as a way of telling the reader exactly what action or purpose the email serves and then goes on to give the context. For many with full email boxes, this strategy is golden.
    • Only “reply all” if that is the culture of the organization. The BCC line can be a method to discourage “reply all” but you still need to be transparent about who is receiving the email. This is as simple as the salutation “Hello board members,” or “Good morning board and staff.”
    • Do not use email to make legally binding decisions of the board – Alaska law does not allow this – or to discuss personnel issues – EVER. Pick up the phone or have a meeting with an executive session.

Board Monthly Connection

This tool is referred to as a board report or a board-staff update. It is often delivered monthly or quarterly. Its intent is to capture enough flavor of the big work so that people feel connected to the mission, and it offers potential action items to move the mission forward. A quick Google search will provide some examples. For many of you, this is new and for some, it might need a refresh. Use this tool to create consistent and predictable communication from the executive to the board or within the board if there are no staff, to set expectations that service extends beyond a board meeting, to distinguish between information and urgency, and to reinforce other communication and commitments. A few considerations we have learned along the way with this tool:

  • Create a template, either one you make or one you buy, to offer consistency and make it easy to scroll. Your format should offer opportunities to dive deeper or ask questions if there is interest.
  • Choose a delivery mechanism that won’t get caught in spam filters and requires little or no clicking to get to – easy access is key.
  • Use pictures not just words.
  • Focus on the future before recapping the past.
  • Encourage engagement and excitement.
  • Limit clicks for more information or action. The whole document should take less than five minutes to read.

As one example, the framework of my monthly update includes:

  • A short paragraph about the month with a picture of “mission in action”
  • A few bullets on ways to be a “Foraker Advocate or Ambassador”
  • A few bullets on “Exciting Projects Coming Soon”
  • A summary of board committee activity and upcoming meeting dates in case others want to join the conversations (minutes are provided in the board packet for a full description)
  • A reminder of dates for future meetings or other activities or celebrations

A brief recap of our work for the month to reinforce our commitments and values

Among the many “go slow to go fast” tools from us, getting communication right can be tricky. Often the best-received message is one where we chart a path for the right message, at the right time, delivered in the right way, for the right reason, and by the right messenger. Phew, that is a tall order. For these reasons, we encourage you to move carefully and strive for multiple channels of communication to reinforce the topics that matter the most.

Need help? Want to share a success? We would love to hear from you.