The Parking Lot Board Meeting – Four Reasons Why This Is Not A Great Idea!
The Parking Lot Board Meeting – Four reasons Why They Are Not a Great Idea!
“People are secretive when they have secrets.”
– Deb Caletti
“When one with honeyed words but evil mind persuades the mob, great woes befall the state.”
One of the many concerns of almost every head of school and nonprofit CEO is that following the official board meeting there will be the unofficial board meeting in the parking lot. During a recent governance workshop I was conducting I brought up this issue and there was a lot head-nodding in recognition of “Oh yes, I know exactly what you are talking about.” I have witnessed this first-hand and heard it described by numerous school and nonprofit leaders. It is most often dangerous, counter-productive, and almost always inappropriate. I’m not referring to the more innocent version where a few trustees discuss an issue unrelated to the board meeting. A conversation about children, or something business related, or perhaps discussing a future lunch date is fine.
Why are these conversations so dangerous and inappropriate? There are numerous reasons – here are a few that should be a warning to boards.
1. All conversations that are related to the work of the board and organization should be discussed openly and include all board members and the appropriate staff – except when the board is discussing and evaluating the CEO. These parking lot exchanges are like secret meetings that are held outside the earshot of the CEO. Confidentiality is a cornerstone trait that all boards must embrace. Secrecy among a few select board members is a characteristic that must be rejected.
2. Parking lot discussions are all too often filled with rumors, gossip, and misinformation. Without the benefit of those knowledgeable of a particular issue, there is little benefit to speculating – regardless of the topic.
3. The parking lot board meetings convey a lack of trust in the process of working together in partnership to advance the organization. If partnership and trust is the foundation on which the relationship is based, then such “meetings” are outside the bounds of what is best for that relationship – and what is best for the school or organization.
4. They often result in actions that represent the interests of only a few board members. It is here where personal agendas are played out. Personal agendas threaten the work of the board because they represent a lack of pulling together and a belief that purpose and strategy or merely words that sound good but have minimal value. Like the quote from Euripides, don’t let someone who sounds good persuade you from doing what is right – what is best for the organization.
Recently, while attending a conference, I ran into a friend and colleague. I had conducted a board retreat for this school a few months ago and I was interested in how everything was going. My friend laughed and said, “As soon as they reached the parking lot following the retreat the conversation shifted to an issue that had nothing to do with board business but rather a complaint about a member of the staff. As soon as I found out about it, I quickly spoke with the board chair and made it clear how inappropriate that was.”
Another example involves a parking lot gathering of a board in which the topic quickly spiraled into complaints about the web site. Following a brief and useless discussion, this group of trustees thought the best course was to form an ad-hoc committee to address their concerns. The next morning representatives from the so-called committee showed up in the office of the director of communications. She was caught completely off-guard! Later she called the head who said he knew nothing about this. When he called the board chair her response was, “Yes, I got a call last night. I saw no harm in their action.” What does this story say about the relationship between the head and the board chair?
In my new book, Super Boards: How Inspired Governance Transforms Your Organization, I address the issue of board expectations. The positive culture of an organization is jeopardized when trustees fail to realize their actions can be harmful and destructive. When the Committee on Trustees is fulfilling its responsibilities, expectations should be communicated and clarified at every opportunity – recruitment, orientation, and ongoing education. Setting expectations regarding what is acceptable and what is not must be a priority when recruiting prospective trustees. Discuss with these trustee prospects what is acceptable and what is not. A school or nonprofit organization can’t assume that everyone on, or joining, the board “gets it” and will understand what a genuine partnership really entails. It clearly should not include the dreaded parking lot board meeting!