Board meeting etiquette is, many times, determined by the tradition and culture of the organization represented by a particular board. Many boards follow Robert's Rules of Order for their meetings, a guideline for order and efficiency written by General Henry M. Robert.
Those following a traditional approach to their meetings may follow Robert's Rules more strictly than boards who keep a more relaxed approach. This may vary depending on whether the board governs a company, firm, foundation, or university.
As mentioned in my article on business meeting etiquette, it is important for members to always be prepared, punctual, and polite. This is the basis for any meeting, but higher expectations tend to exist for members of boards.
Boards operate in the realm of professional, but with the added dimension of fiduciary and legal responsibility. The board is a legal entity. Individuals who serve on boards have been asked to do so because of what they bring uniquely to the board.
Meeting formats vary from the typical business meeting as well. A Chairman of the Board presides over the meeting and is primarily responsible for meeting agenda preparation well ahead of time, for directing business, and for conducting the meeting based on a system of protocol (such as Robert’s Rules of Order).
T. Alan Russell, Chairman of the Board, Liberty Fund, Inc., Indianapolis, IN area, states, “We follow Robert’s Rules of Order on a serious, but not rigid basis. We use a queue system, although I make judgments based on topics.”
Hand-raising is typically the way to be recognized or to place your name on the queue. Diane Kaplan, President and CEO of the Rasmuson Foundation, Anchorage AK, agrees and stresses that members should “Raise your hand and wait to be acknowledged before speaking. Listen. A lot! Don’t repeat a point that has already been made.”
According to James Doti, President of Chapman University, Orange, CA, “It is extremely important for new board members to be relatively silent until they attend enough meetings and are more informed about subjects as well as have enough time to glean a greater understanding of the culture of a company.”
Allow more experienced members to contribute first and lead by example.
Everyone’s input is important, so keep time in mind. “Our meetings start on time, and when there is inclement weather and a board member is in the immediate area, we will wait,” says Mr. Russell.
Ms. Kaplan reminds new board members, “No question is a dumb question. If you don’t understand something, ask for clarification. Someone else likely has the same question. Keep your comments brief.”
Meeting involvement is very important. “No side conversations,” Mr. Russell stated.
Stay focused and polite.
President Doti indicates, “If there is a comment or question that may embarrass another director or senior officer, it is most inappropriate.” Members should “do your homework and keep questions and comments during a meeting focused and on point.”
President Doti also believes “for those who have more experience, proper etiquette calls for mentoring newer members about that culture.”
Helping newer members understand the necessity to assess the atmosphere and situation and act accordingly, rather than rush in, is important. Experienced board members teach new ones the ropes, not only to assist the new member, but to protect the interests of the entire board.
Members should also know what is expected of them when presenting information as part of the meeting agenda. If you have questions about the meeting, phone the Chairman well beforehand. Your preparation is a nice contribution to the efficiency and productivity of the meeting.
Make sure you know the specific rules of etiquette for your particular board. New board members should be willing to learn these, and all board members should be willing to observe them.
It is also important for board members to recognize that many non-board staff members have been involved in your meeting preparations. All of these contributors should be treated with respect and courtesy. There is much "behind the scenes" effort provided to achieve successful board meetings.
In addition to the individual meeting organization rules for a board, there are general board meeting etiquette rules.
“Don’t read email or text during the meetings,” states Ms. Kaplan. Likewise, at Liberty Fund, Inc. board meetings, Mr. Russell says, “No smoking and cell phones silenced.”
Regardless, cell phones are not to be placed on the conference table and should not be handled during a meeting.
Also, Ms. Kaplan reminds board members, “Don’t engage in side conversations while the meeting is underway, even if someone tries to draw you into one.”
Additional tips for board members include:
Being selected to serve on a board of directors or trustees is an honor. And a big responsibility. Knowing the etiquette and protocols can’t be overestimated. But gaining experience takes time. Your patience and attention to the bigger picture should trump over-achieving.