The following article was first published in “Dynamic,” which is the publication of Choirs Ontario. Choirs Ontario supports choral music groups and directors across the province of Ontario. Cantiamo’s choir manager, Jane Pickett, was invited to share her experience on running an board meetings.
As you may have already experienced firsthand, board meetings can be onerous affairs. They can be dysfunctional for many reasons. Sometimes it is because the two main roles on the board do not like or respect each other. Sometimes these meetings start late, do not stick to the agenda and members move away from the group to have side conversations during the meeting.
As Chair of the Board at Cantiamo Girls Choir of Ottawa, I am fortunate to work with a great group of people on a board that functions well. We are all volunteers. People do not join our board to list it on their resumé. They join because they like what our choir does, its values and because they want to be more involved. We are a working board. We set an agenda, talk about the items on the agenda, make decisions, plan how to execute the decisions, execute the plans and follow up at the next meeting. I initially took all of this for granted but am appreciating it now and would like to share some of our approaches.
Define Who and What You Are
Our previous Chair of the Board was very business savvy and knew that for things to function well things needed to be clearly defined. Firstly, everyone needs to have a clearly defined role. Spend time going through all of the processes of your choir, defining who is responsible, accountable, consulted and informed (RACI) for each item. From that information some very clear roles and responsibilities are easily created. Secondly, have a constitution that details precisely who you are and what you do. Your constitution should also outline your simple, clear and concise mission statement that will be referenced frequently in your decision making. As your choir evolves so should your constitution and your list of roles and responsibilities.
Before The First Meeting
Before the first meeting of the year, the Chair of the Board should create an initial plan of dates and topics for all of the board meetings for the year. Schedule monthly meetings according to your needs. Sometimes they are more frequent if, for example, you want to get through your budget process. Sometimes they are one or two weeks prior to a major event to ensure that you are ready for the event. This schedule stays at the bottom of the minutes for each month, with each meeting being deleted from the list as it has occurred. It gives a real sense of making progress and keeps critical information handy at each meeting.
At The First Meeting
At the first meeting of the year with your new board, review the roles & responsibilities, the upcoming year’s key activities and discuss relevant roles for the board members to determine who will fill which roles. This ensures that all critical functions are covered for the choral season. Board members indicate their interest. Those currently in a position have first right to renew. After that, the remaining roles are up for grabs. Encourage people to take on what interests them. Encourage mentoring and training between the board members. Once roles are assigned, then expectations should be reviewed. The expectation of everyone on the board is that they will do the job for which they volunteered and that they will ask for help when they need it. We all wear many hats and can get overwhelmed, have personal or family illnesses and work and family obligations. It is important that difficulties are communicated and then the rest of the board helps in whatever way they can.
At The Regular Monthly Meetings
For the regular monthly meetings, the Chair of the Board should send out the agenda, minutes of the last meeting and any other new documents to be introduced at the meeting one week before the meeting date. The agenda should contain the usual type of topics: calls the meeting to order, approval of last meeting’s minutes, review of the minutes from the previous meeting including any post event reflections and addressing of action items, items planned for the meeting, review of supports for upcoming events, new items, adjournment and finally lists the next meeting date and location. The minutes contain a reflection of the decisions made and action items resulting from your discussions. If items are not accomplished then offer help and re-prioritize, re-assign or reschedule as necessary. Listen to problems and try to fix them. Sometimes have initial discussions on items and then defer the decision to the next meeting to give everyone time to ponder the issue further. When bringing up larger items present an initial plan to get the discussion going and be open to revisions from input at the meeting. People want to be heard and want to contribute only if they feel heard and respected. This is especially true for contrary opinions. It is easy to lose perspective, therefore it is important to have those opinions. The Secretary sends out minutes as soon as they are ready, usually within a day or two.
Meeting etiquette is also key to the proper functioning of meetings. Start on time barring poor weather or family emergencies. A warm and intimate setting for the meeting is important. The socialising at the start of the meeting is important but everyone’s time is valuable so it is best to respect that by starting on time or within 5 minutes of the start time. Members arrive on time or call ahead if they are going to be late. Cell phones are on vibrate or silent. Side discussions can be disruptive so when they occur the members are encouraged to add this point to the discussion. Everyone is focused, exhibiting active listening and respect for the speakers. The Chair’s role is to keep discussions moving and on topic and listen to everyone’s ideas, summarize and communicate what they hear from the group. If discussions are veering off topic then make a joke or statement such as, “We need to settle down” or, “We won’t get home until midnight at this rate” which usually gets everyone quickly back on task.
Have an annual retreat at the end of the choral season. This retreat is key to improving the bonding between the board members and to improving the organization as a whole. Have social time and then a longer meeting where everyone discusses their year-end reflections to assess what went well, what didn’t, when to give yourselves a pat on the back and what to focus on for improvements the following year. From this comes your first pass at what needs to be added to next year’s board meeting schedule.
Respect and care for each other and soon everyone will feel comfortable enough with each other to have open and free flowing communication. Meetings should be business-like but also pleasant. Use humour, check your egos at the door, listen to each other, make sure people feel heard and are respectful of all opinions. Think of this as the three Cs: communication, cooperation and collaboration. Be a great role model to all of your choristers of people working together to make a difference in your community. I am privileged and proud to be part of such a great group of individuals.
– Jane Pickett, Choir Manager