Take Your Board to the LAKE

The care and feeding of high performing board cultures has taken a hit these past months. This has been observed many times by any number of board directors in my network. I imagine you’ve heard the same comments.

Still, we should feel grateful for our near universal access to affordable virtual meeting software that makes it possible for us to meet in real time with actual faces in front of us and voices in our ears. Can you imagine the alternative experience if all those virtual meetings of the past year had been conducted by teleconference?

Even with video conferencing software, we’re learning that directors really miss the extra 'je ne sais quoi' that helps create a cohesive board team resulting from the extra touch points that happen at in-person meetings. Think about the brief social conversations that take place in the food line, during breaks, in the restroom, before and after the meeting, and maybe over a beverage afterward.

We all know that’s tough to do when we go virtual, with most directors inclined to connect online just before the meeting and to exit immediately afterward.

On the bright side, savvy directors like my friend Ken Kustra are really starting to put some good thinking into how to regenerate “some of the camaraderie and friendship growth that occurs naturally when we are at a traditional in-person session.”

 

Project LAKE

Ken connected with me on a Microsoft Teams call recently to share an idea which he came up with in his role as Board Chair of St. Amant Foundation and Vice Chair of the St. Amant Board of Directors here in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

As a senior partner in a national accounting/professional services firm - MNP - I always knew Ken had a really good handle on the financial side of things. I was intrigued by his idea to work on the softer side of director skills, and wanted to share with you today.

Ken’s idea is called Project LAKE. (Hence the image at the top of this blog. Extra points for anyone who identifies the lake!)

The intention of Project LAKE is to create an environment for board directors to network and connect in a virtual setting. The goal is to address the lack of opportunity for interpersonal connection when regular board meetings all take place virtually. Project LAKE is all about restoring the camaraderie and relationship building that an in-person meeting can generate.

Why LAKE? Well, in addition to paying homage to one of Ken’s favorite places, LAKE is an acronym:

  • Learn about new topics.
  • Appreciate the resources we are given.
  • Keep improving our governance.
  • Enhance relationships with other board members.

In a nutshell, the idea is modeled after a traditional book club - board members meet for an hour outside of regular board meeting time to discuss a feature video or online course on a topic that’s agreed upon ahead of time.

How it Works

Before the scheduled ‘offsite’ video chat, board members select an online lecture or course that they agree to study ahead of time. Then they meet virtually over Teams or Zoom to discuss the course content, their takeaways, and anything else that comes up. A few discussion questions are provided in advance to guide the proceedings, but the goal is to have an open conversation without management present.

The Rules

In Ken’s example, participation in the process was entirely optional. But all directors who did choose to participate were asked to allow enough time to watch the video, which did not exceed one hour in length.

The Ask

Ken identified a series of free lectures – called Keynotes - from Cornell University. You can check out the selection here. Three options were considered, and the board decided upon ‘Problem Solved - Making Complex Decisions with Confidence and Conviction’.

If you’re interested in trying this with your own board, you can identify potential videos and topics from a variety of sources such as TED Talks, your local board director institute, professional accounting association, board software portals, or board volunteer organization, to name a few. There’s lots out there, and no doubt you’ll find your favorite source for engaging content.

Seeding Questions

As Ken Kustra got the conversation going on a Wednesday evening with his fellow directors, he outlined the overall objective:

“The goal of our session is to have a great conversation. Here are a few things to keep in mind when you follow the Keynote to help facilitate our discussion.”

  • What did you think of the Keynote?
  • What will you take away from the Keynote?
  • How might you apply this to how you act as a member of the board?
  • How might we alter how we approach decisions as a board?
  • Has your thinking changed as a result of the Keynote?
  • Was this an effective use of your time?

Source: Ken Kustra, CPA, CA, CIA

The Result

After each board member had viewed the e-lecture from Cornell University and participated in the Project LAKE discussion, a consensus emerged that it would be a good idea for the board to conduct post-mortems on strategic board decisions. So, how did they ‘dock that boat’?

During the discussion, Ken raised questions such as:

  • Do we make enough decisions as a board?
  • Do we hold ourselves accountable for our decisions (through look-back analysis or post-mortems)?
  • Do we check/challenge/validate and look beyond the information that management provides to us to make decisions?
  • Do we visualize success? Do we picture what a successful outcome would look like and then identify the decisions that would have to be made to get there?
  • How can we ensure that we quiet our biases? Or do we need to? Does our board’s diversity create a natural ‘gut check’ of our personal biases?

All of this came about because of a free-flowing discussion between the board members – a discussion sparked by the intentional decision to create an opportunity and environment to meet outside of a regular board meeting.

All directors committed to previewing the video and thinking about the discussion questions in advance. In essence, the entire group benefited from doing the PREP.

I’m told that another great benefit was the added comfort and feeling of safety for new board directors to speak up and jump into the discussion using the video review as a trigger. Like many of your boards, this year’s crop of new board recruits at St. Amant had yet to meet their fellow board members in-person. Ken’s innovative introduction of Project LAKE twelve months into the pandemic provided an intentional method for all directors to collaborate on a pre-determined issue in a safe way. And, as an added bonus, they got to know each other better.

Kudos to the St. Amant Board for agreeing to give it a try. It will be interesting to follow this story in the months ahead to see how the board’s dynamics continue to evolve.

 

DirectorPrep’s Community Opens Up

As for me, I’m excited to have one of our DirectorPrep members come forward to share an idea with the larger group of Savvy Director readers on Sunday mornings. I’m so glad Ken gave his permission to share this story with you.

The St. Amant Board seems to have found a way to network and interact. Even though directors are not in a boardroom together, they created an opportunity to have a focused discussion where:

  • There was no wrong answer.
  • No decisions had to be made.
  • No formal board meeting took place.

What do you think of the idea of finding ways for DirectorPrep members to connect online to have a live discussion from time-to-time? Feel free to leave a comment below.

 

Your takeaways:

  • During today’s virtual reality, our boards are open to finding alternative methods for meeting, so they get to know each other better as colleagues.
  • One director can make a difference with an innovative idea to enhance board collaboration.
  • The savvy director recognizes an opportunity to make things better and has the courage to do a little homework and bring a new idea to the board for discussion. By the way, it’s probably a good idea to vet the idea with the board chair ahead of time.

 

Resources:

 

Leave a comment below to get in on the conversation.

Thank you.

Scott

Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of DirectorPrep.com – an online hub with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help prepare for your next board meeting.


Share Your Insight: What suggestions would you have for board directors to connect online as a group outside of a regular board or committee meeting?

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