The Best Board of Directors Meeting

I have served on various Boards through the years, and it fascinates me how different each one is. Group dynamics vary with the size and personality of the organization, and I am always keen on finding a Board that matches my skills and interests. I tend to like a structured format, and now that I have enjoyed the efficiency of that type of group, I’m sure I would  find it difficult to go back into something less formal.

For the sake of comparison, I will tell you about one of the less formal Boards I have encountered. They had many issues, most notably a lack of fiscal responsibility and an excess of drama. I will not name the organization, because I would hate to cause them any grief. They just weren’t a good fit for me. The meetings never lasted less than 2 hours and often teetered close to the 3 hour mark. I rarely stayed to the bitter end. Even if I didn’t have anything pressing to do, I would get up and leave early as a statement of silent protest for the length of non-productive discussion.

By contrast, the most formal and efficient Board I have experienced is the Symphony Orchestra Augusta (SOA). I assumed a spot on the Board after my boss’s term came to an end; the dealership needed representation with the organization we support the most. When I received the welcome letter with a copy of the organizational guidelines, I was impressed. When I participated in the new Board member orientation, I was pleased. In the 2 years since then, I have found the group to be productive, organized, and appreciative of the people who serve.

At the time I joined, SOA was undergoing an intensive and detailed study to assess the feasibility of renovating the historic Miller Theater downtown. Having fallen into a state of disrepair, the building was purchased and saved by Peter Knox, who generously offered it to SOA as a home for their performances. Mr. Knox wisely knew that if this amazing structure was to ever be resuscitated, it would require a group as solid and well-connected as the Symphony. The building needed a purpose, and SOA needed a home. It was an odd pairing, though: this artsy, run-down architectural wonder with a conservative cultural establishment. I loved the building long before I joined the Symphony Board, so witnessing the amount of work they were putting into the study of saving it made me even more impressed with my new Board family.

Although the building was offered as a gift, the organization did not accept it right away. For 2 ½ years,  as community patience ran thin, SOA took meticulous care to assess if it was a wise move. Assuming responsibility of bringing the theater back to life was a risk, and a costly one-both from a financial standpoint and a PR standpoint. It took a great deal of vision and even more faith to think that we could add “managing a multi-purpose theater” to our already ambitious list of obectives.  We were fortunate that a generous benefactor covered the cost of several consultants who guided us in our decision-making. They helped answer questions about acoustics, sustainability and fundraising. The entire process was incredibly arduous, but fortunately (again) for us, one of our Board members volunteered his time to lead the adventure, and his dedication and tenacity would ultimately determine the Miller’s fate. I’m speaking, of course, of the intelligent and amazing Levi Hill IV.

Levi articulately reported on his progress at each Board meeting throughout that 2 ½ year period. Toward the end of that time, as the consultants reports began to take final form, his team held coffee meetings with Board members to have in-depth dialogue about the pros and cons of the project.  I was blown away at the due diligence that was going behind this one simple question: do we accept Peter Knox’s offer to give us his beautiful and run-down building?

It may have been one question, but the answer held enormous potential. The Miller could save the Symphony by giving us relevance and new connections in a time when symphonic organizations all across the country are struggling with their old business models. The SOA could save the Miller by giving it the strength of a 50+ year heritage of excellence. The Symphony would have a home, and the Miller would have a new lease on life. As an added bonus, a struggling downtown would have a growing theater district, and Augusta would have a new venue to fit perfectly in the spectrum of other performance halls available in our area. The risk was high, but the potential for positive results was even higher.

In the end, the consultant’s report came back with a reassuring message: this can work. There was a caveat to that message, though: it will only work if you commit to it fully, and believe in it completely. Within the SOA organization and board, we cannot afford any dissention or doubt. You are in or you are out. Do not accept this building half-heartedly. It has to be passionately agreed upon, or rejected. After years of study and debate, it was time to stand up and be counted.

The date was set for a Board meeting called especially for the multi-million dollar decision. At 5pm on September 22nd, 2011, we met at the SunTrust Board Room downtown. Any board or staff member who could not physically be there dialed in via teleconference. I never thought I would see the day when I would be excited to attend a Board meeting. There was no way I would have missed it.

Board President Joe Huff called the meeting to order. He welcomed the group with his rare gift of balancing the gravity of the moment with charm and lightness. He meticulously explained the rules of how the meeting would proceed. He gave a clear message to us that if we voted ‘yes’ today with our voices, we would be asked to vote ‘yes’ tomorrow with our wallets. It would take all of us contributing to the project with our time, talents and resources to pull off this miracle.

Attendance was called and everyone was accounted for. Joe instructed us to go around the room and offer a comment regarding the choice at hand. Each person had the chance to voice their spin on the decision, revealing their hopes, doubts and fears.

You would think that having so many individuals offering their opinion on a single topic would be drawn-out, boring drudgery, especially toward the end. The exact opposite happened. As each person spoke, we began to feel the momentum build. To our amazement, each person expressed hopefulness for the project. Despite many who admitted to severe reservations early in the process, they also described how their concerns were addressed, fears were abated, and enthusiasm grew. My mood changed from trepidation that the vote might not pass, to excitement as it began to look like it might even be unanimous. I was going to be a part of history, and it was unfolding before my eyes.

Finally the last person had shared their thoughts, and it was time for the official vote. Each member’s name was called out, and they responded with their final and official answer. Do you want the SOA to accept the gift of the Miller Theatre, make it our home, and assume responsibility for a revitalized theater in downtown Augusta? Name after name was called, and we all felt honored to offer our enthusiastic “Yes”. The power in the moment of knowing the decision was unanimous is not one I will ever forget. Symphony Orchestra Augusta was entering a new phase of collaborations and involvement in the community. We were going to have a home, downtown was getting a theater, and Augusta was saving a piece of her history. That’s the power of an efficient Board.

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