Trustee talk: Loosening up your board meetings

Nathalie Thomas interviews Clive Lawton, chairman of Jewish development charity Tzedek.

It's important to have humour in the boardroom because it releases people and helps them think and behave more creatively and openly. The formalities of board meetings can sometimes stifle interaction and engagement.

When we talk about humour, though, we should distinguish between fun inside and outside the board meeting. A lot of boards are now very good at having fun experiences outside formal meetings - they do things like beating each other up in inflatable sumo suits. That's a marvellous development and they often have better relationships at meetings as a result.

What I'm more interested in, however, is ways in which the meeting itself can be loosened up. You can do this by introducing activities geared to how people feel, not how they perform in their roles.

I recently ran a workshop at the NCVO annual trustee conference to show the type of thing that can be transferred to board meetings. I went round a circle of people and asked them to introduce themselves in the standard way. After the fifth person I interrupted and said: "I'm bored, and probably so is everyone else."

I then got them to do a similar thing by holding hands and doing a bit of imaginary palmistry. People made up an image of the person sitting next to them according to the lines on their hand.

The other person then explained why they were right or wrong. The explosion of conversation and the release of emotion it caused was tremendous.

This kind of approach can also help trustees value routine parts of meetings.

I always recommend that the last item on an agenda should be to ask everyone what they thought they did of value at the meeting. Doing that two or three times can have a salutary impact on how you do things in future.

For instance, few people will mention looking through the balance sheet as something of value. After this has happened a couple of times, the chair should say: "I think we should stop looking at the balance sheet because nobody values it." People will suddenly protest that it's actually the board's responsibility. In doing so, they will have realised its value.

There may be other things the board does regularly that it might decide are not necessary. If nobody values a certain activity and people don't deem it important, the board can drop it.

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