Focused Preparation Helps Avoid a ‘Bored’ Agenda

Focus on the Presidency column written by Tulane President Scott S. Cowen
May/June 2005

The meeting agenda reflects how a board values itself and views its priorities and responsibilities.

“What a waste of time.”

Have you ever said or heard that after a board meeting? If so, I suspect one of the culprits is a poorly conceived agenda, which is symptomatic of an ineffective board. Agenda preparation, while unglamorous on the surface, is a valuable investment of effort. A well-crafted agenda is essential to creating a board meeting at which trustees’ expertise and judgments are tapped in vital areas.

Effective governing boards use the agenda preparation process and the agenda itself as a strategic tool to enhance board functioning. Yet some boards under-value this tool and spurn agenda preparation as routine. The process of setting the agenda for a board meeting should be a collaborative one between the board chair and the president, with input from other board and organizational leaders.

At Tulane University, the board chair and I agree on the general topics after consultation with executive committee members and other senior officers. Through an iterative process we set the agenda with the objectives I’ve outlined for the meeting in mind. The final step is approval of the agenda by the chair and members of the executive committee.

A strategic agenda should accomplish at least four objectives:

1. Ensure that the most important topics are discussed, striking the appropriate balance between operational and strategic issues. The functions of a college or university board range from ensuring that the appropriate senior university leadership is in place, to evaluating and approving tactical plans and long-term strategies (academic, administrative, and financial), to evaluating the performance of the organization and its leadership.

Each board and committee agenda should respond to these functions at a level of inquiry appropriate to a board. Interestingly, effective boards tend to spend most of their time discussing issues at a strategic level, seeking to understand the external environmental factors likely to affect the institutions’ future.

2. Provide board members with appropriate materials well before a meeting to ensure informed discussion. Because the boards of most private institutions meet only three to five times a year (more often on the public side), it is imperative that trustees be kept abreast of issues between meetings and provided with reading materials adequately in advance.

At Tulane, we keep board members informed through e-mail “Board Alerts” as well as a weekly e-mail message I send to all of Tulane’s stakeholders. Trustees who have e-mail addresses receive the “Tulane Daily News,” which consists of a single item about campus events and people; those without e-mail receive a roundup of the “Daily News” every two weeks.

The selection and packaging of materials prior to a board meeting are critical to the meeting’s success. We prepare materials that are as succinct as possible while making sure they provide a context and focus for board discussions.

3. Use the board meeting to provide exposure to senior management at several levels. One of a board’s most important roles is to assess the competence of senior management and ensure there is sufficient depth of capable leaders throughout the organization. One way to make this assessment is to have the university’s various vice presidents and deans interact with board members, either during board meetings or in outside settings. How these individuals handle themselves in these situations will provide valuable insight into the character and competence of those entrusted to lead and manage the university.

4. Allocate ample time for open discussion in addition to presentations made by senior management. Effective trustees do their homework and are eager to ask questions and provide needed feedback on the institution’s plans and progress. From my experience, this often is the most valuable segment of board meetings. Inquisitive, experienced trustees add value by asking penetrating questions, but they need sufficient time to voice their opinions.

On the flip side, “show and tell” meetings often are boring for trustees, and too many of these presentations simply repeat what’s in the advance reading materials. Make no mistake, a board’s agenda reflects how a board values itself and view its priorities and responsibilities. Ineffective boards waste time, and their meetings often neglect or fail to focus adequately on the really important issues. Unfocused meetings ultimately undermine organizational effectiveness.

Scott S. Cowen is president of Tulane University.

Section: Focus on the Presidency
Volume 13, Number 3, Page 5