You can’t drive a car to a new destination without a roadmap, and a board can’t conduct a productive meeting—and ultimately, effectively oversee the organization—without a well-thought agenda that keeps meetings focused on discussing what’s important, and helping the board stay proactive on the potential opportunities and threats facing their bank. What’s placed on that agenda, and when it’s discussed, differs a bit from bank to bank. But there are several issues that should be on every agenda, and some that should be addressed regularly, albeit less frequently.
At every meeting
Bank board agendas don’t differ from a standard corporate agenda in many respects. There should be a call to order, review and approval of minutes from the previous meeting, and a review of reports.
For a bank, every meeting should include a review of financial reports, with the chief financial officer on hand to address questions and discuss items in detail. Directors will also want to review loan reports, at which point the board will typically hear from the senior loan officer. Reports from the committee chairs should also be heard at every board meeting.
New business will include updates on strategic initiatives, including milestones and progress. Actions taken by the bank to address regulatory concerns should also be addressed, though how frequently this item appears on the agenda will depend on how much hot water the bank is in with its examiners. Trends impacting the growth and financial performance of the bank should also be discussed.
Old business should also be addressed in the agenda, and it’s an area often overlooked by banks, according to Bob Brown, a managing director at Kaplan Partners and board member at $84 million asset County Savings Bank in Essington, Pennsylvania. He previously spent 40 years at PwC. If management was instructed to take a certain action, or the board decided it would circle back to an issue, those matters shouldn’t be dropped.
Regular items to address
Risk, cybersecurity and technology are top concerns for bank boards, but directors are split on how often these topics need to be discussed by the full board. Twenty-six percent of respondents to Bank Director’s 2018 Risk Survey said their board discusses cybersecurity at every meeting, compared to 37 percent who do so quarterly. Half of the respondents to the 2018 Technology Survey said their board discusses technology at every meeting, compared to 37 percent who cover the topic quarterly.
The board should discuss management and incentive compensation semiannually, advises Brown. And don’t forget the auditors: Internal auditors should address the board semiannually, and external auditors annually.
Board education should be woven into the agenda at least quarterly, and should cover a variety of topics relevant to directors’ level of expertise as well as any ongoing regulatory, economic or competitive concerns. Regularly bringing in outside experts can also stimulate productive dialogue among board members.
Every year, the board should review board and committee charters, as well as key policies and loan loss reserves. The makeup of the board should also be assessed annually, using a board matrix or evaluation, or both. A board matrix is a grid that lists all the directors on one axis, and the skill sets and attributes needed on the board on the other. This check-the-box-style exercise can be an easy way to identify gaps where additional expertise is needed.
Strategic planning should occur annually and will drive the agenda by setting the priorities that the board will want to follow up on throughout the year. “That then drives what senior management does,” says Jim McAlpin, a partner and leader of the financial services client service group at the law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner. Does the bank need to renew its contract with its core vendor, or seek another solution? Does it make sense to build a new branch? These decisions should be fueled by the strategic plan. “It’s good to take stock, set direction and plan, and then over the course of the next year refer back to that plan and refer back to the priorities when engaging with the CEO,” he says.
McAlpin recommends that strategic planning take place off site if possible, with the board spending a half day or day talking about the bank’s strategic direction.
The board chairman—or the lead director, if the chairman is not independent—often develops the agenda, with input from the chief executive. Committee chairmen should also weigh in to ensure those areas are addressed. Individual directors should feel welcome to contribute to the agenda, and there should be room to speak up during meetings. “A good agenda should include a line item in which the chair asks if there are any additional matters the directors think should be addressed,” says McAlpin.
An annual discussion that sets the agenda for the year—tied to the strategic planning session—can help boards better drive what’s on the agenda, says Brown. The governance and nominating committee can then take that conversation and finetune the scope of the board’s agenda for the year, with input from the board before it’s finalized.
Getting the right input
It’s important to hear from other members of the management team and ask questions directly of the heads of the respective areas of the organization, rather than relying on one source—the CEO—for that information. Ideally, the board should hear from the CFO at every board meeting to address financial matters. The heads of legal, compliance, human resources and information technology should also be available to address their areas of expertise, when needed. McAlpin recommends asking open-ended questions to gain their perspectives and address any of the board’s concerns. “If I were a board member, I’d rather [their answers] be unfiltered,” rather than through the CEO, he says.
Brown also recommends that the board hear from business line leaders at least annually, to better understand these important areas of the business.
Aside from better understanding the bank, it’s important for the board to understand the depth of the management team. “Perhaps the most important role a board has is selecting and evaluating the CEO,” says Brown. “Succession planning is a key responsibility, and understanding the management team’s depth, strengths and weaknesses of management team members, and having the chance to see them in action … is really important.”
Independent directors should also make time to discuss issues without management present, in an executive session, advises Brown.
Facilitating effective discussions
The board agenda will structure the discussion, but it’s on the board to ensure those discussions are fruitful. First and foremost, materials should be provided in advance, so directors have time to prepare.
Remote participation has become more common as technological solutions like web conferencing make this option easier and can be a good way to attract younger candidates with diverse backgrounds, who may still be building their careers, to the board, says Dottie Schindlinger, vice president at Diligent. But make sure discussions are secure. Don’t reuse the same conference call number and passcode every time—this can easily be accessed by a disgruntled ex-employee, for example, who then gains access to sensitive conversations. And directors shouldn’t use their personal emails to discuss board matters. Web portals, such as that offered by Diligent, can help boards store and access information, and communicate safely.
Remote attendance can have its disadvantages, and there are always directors who tend to dominate a discussion. An effective facilitator—usually the chairman or lead director—will overcome these hurdles and ensure everyone’s voice is heard. Pointed, open-ended questions can help engage introverted board members. Making sure one director speaks at a time cuts out crosstalk and helps remote directors understand what’s discussed.
McAlpin emphasizes that it’s important to have an actual discussion—not just directors passively listening to what the CEO has to say, or other members of management, or the committee chairs. And this underscores the need to assemble a strong board. “Some of the most effective CEOs, I’ve found, are those who purposefully build a strong board—a board consisting of board members with a range of strong experience, good insight and a willingness to share feedback and make suggestions,” he says.