Planning your Board awayday? You might want to read this first

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“The date for the awayday just crept up on me” confided one senior charity leader recently “And I thought I better fill that agenda up. So that’s what I did”. Was he being disarmingly honest? Yup. Was he getting the best out of the precious time his Board was about to spend together?  Most certainly not

This slightly eye-watering conversation got me thinking about the significance of Board awaydays. And then I did some maths.

The typical charity Board meeting cycle is four half day meetings a year plus an annual away day. So the typical Board is spending a full fifth of its time together at the awayday.  

And then I did some more maths and figured out how much time I had personally spent in Board awaydays as a Chief Executive or Trustee and now as a consultant engaged to design and deliver these days. I came up with a figure which led to a sharp intake of breath (spoiler alert – it is a lot).

And I began to remember the awaydays bad, good and exceptional I have attended and got to thinking about what needs to be in place to get the best out of these meetings. And trustees week seemed the ideal time to post my thoughts.

To get a return from an awayday, you need to invest. High quality days follow from high quality thinking.  Take the time gain insights into where your Board is now. What do they think are the key challenges ahead? How well are they being engaged? What do they need from the day? This will help you identify the next step on the journey and design an awayday that is part of that.

The best days are built together by the Chair and Chief Executive. I am always intrigued when I am approached by Chair or Chief Executive independently to ask me to craft a day. The best days are commissioned together as it allows you to knit together a conversation about organisational aspiration and Board working.

To get something different out of Board awayday you need to give yourself permission to be different and do different. The awayday is not the right place to make decisions, or to test your Execs operational plans . Simple things like finding a different venue and getting rid of papers will help signal the difference allowing Board and Exec to stand side by side and think together. Avoid the temptation of tacking on a regular meeting, but if you have to, do the awayday business first. Otherwise the usual working style of the Board will cast its shadow over the awayday.

Be fearsome with the agenda and make time for the conversations that really matter. My rough rule of thumb is to develop a first draft agenda and then work with the Chair and Chief Executive to get rid of 20% of it. Schedule in breaks after heavy and challenging discussions so that Board members can process and regroup. Make time for the Board to share its reflections. Without this, what the Board “really thinks” will be shared by the coffee machine or in the queue for the loos but never aired across the whole Board.

And finally, grab the opportunity to go deeper. I have seen how a combination of British reserve, conflict avoidance and time pressures on ordinary Board agendas can mean that Board conversations take place at a surface level and where there are differences in view these are papered over for the sake of making a decision. Few Boards take the time to understand why these differences have emerged and so miss what could be key insights from Board members.  A properly timed and facilitated agenda should allow issues to surface, giving time to understand a bit more about Board members’ experience, beliefs or assumptions.  A good awayday should build the plan and the team and it is exactly these sorts of conversations that will help you do both.

So now for the personal maths – I estimate that I have spent a month of my life in Board awaydays (weekends included!). Yes, that’s a lot.

But here’s the thing: the good ones I’d do all over again because they have allowed a different conversation to happen and have galvanised Board and Exec together behind a common goal.

For free resources to help you get the most from your awayday email

ToolkitKatherine Rake