What an effective board dinner looks like

Director and Board Relationships

What an effective board dinner looks like

Formal board meetings are not great environments to get to know one’s fellow directors. Directors often rush to the board meeting to get there on time and rush off as soon as it ends to get to another meeting. During the Covid period board meetings were held virtually which made it even more difficult for directors to build relationships, trust and rapport.

Boards are more likely to be effective if they take the time and effort to deepen their connections with each other during informal settings such as board dinners. Board dinners are often held the night before a board meeting.

Building deeper relationships, trust and rapport helps a board develop greater unity, alignment and resilience. It makes a board better able to manage a crisis. If directors are more open, it enables enhanced understanding of each other’s lives and motivations. It also helps directors to be more authentic and have robust discussions, without fear. Moreover, it encourages directors to find their voice and challenge each other’s perspectives. Beneficially, it enables directors to deal well with conflict.

‘Breaking Bread’

Many boards share a meal together which is a convivial way of fostering sociability after a long day or prior to a big day of board and/or committee meetings the following day. Often senior executives are invited to join the board dinner and such dinners are often used to get to know each other better. Directors and executives get to have deeper conversations with those they sit next to or opposite.

These dinners can help build and/or deepen connections; but are informal unstructured board dinners the best use of the board’s precious time?

We have had the privilege of facilitating numerous board dinners. We tell boards that they should treat the informal time they have together like gold – it’s precious and unbelievably valuable – so do not waste it!

We recommend that board dinners be kept informal, but also recommend some structure, which includes whole of board table discussions.

Time just with the board and CEO is invaluable too

We often ask directors how much time they have spent together with just their CEO only, formally and informally, in the last 12 months. We are often surprised at the response. Several directors of one organisation told us that they had spent no more than 15 minutes with just the CEO during the prior year. Surprise, surprise, the relationship between the board and that CEO was sub-optimal to say the least – consequently this poor relationship had a significant negative impact on the boards, CEO’s and organisation’s performance.

Informal dinners with the board and CEO are a fabulous way of building relationships, trust, unity and alignment between the CEO and the board.

At the appropriate point in board dinners, we suggest a whole table conversation where the CEO explains to the board their greatest challenges, what is likely to be coming over the hill and what they are most excited about. It is helpful to keep the discussion at an elevated level and with a medium to longer term perspective. Directors should join the discussions, providing their reflections and suggestions too.

Depending upon where the organisation is at, its specific challenges, the competitive environment and economic conditions, directors might be so engrossed in these discussions that no other structured or whole of table conversations are needed during the dinner.

Alternatively, the board might choose one topic to have a table conversation about. The topic could be one of the organisation’s greatest challenges or it might be an extensive list of the board’s priorities for the coming year that gets whittled down to a concise list of three or four.

Another consideration for topic of discussion, is to utilise the time for the board to discuss CEO succession, without the CEO in attendance. This should occur at an appropriate time and location at a director only dinner.

Adding structure to a semi-formal board dinner

We recommend that the Chair arranges a whole of table conversation where they ask those present one or two questions and goes around the table. This inclusive approach enables each director to have input and convey their thoughts. The responses normally provide a great platform for subsequent one-on-one or smaller group discussions.

The questions that we recommend can seem a little too informal and obscure. However, they have been deliberately designed, so as to elicit responses that reveal some of the deepest desires, ambitions and concerns of directors and executives. The responses also illuminate how each respondent thinks and aspects of their character not previously known. This is an enriching experience, as the board gets to know each other better.

Example questions for a board dinner:

  • Please share something about yourself that no one in the room knows about.
    • This is a good icebreaker for early on in a dinner when you have new board members or some executives attending for the first time.
  • Imagine it is 5 years hence and we are all here cracking open the champagne and celebrating tremendous success. Imagine it. Keep yourself in the future state 5 years from now. What is the one or two things you attribute to our incredible success over the last 5 years?
    • Respondents may need to be reminded that they are taking a retrospective stance looking back from 5 years – not forward looking.
  • If our organisation were a vehicle or an animal today, what would it be and why? What vehicle or animal would you like our organisation to represent in five years’ time and why?

We recommend that the CEO or another attendee take notes of the responses and consider how best to follow-up, integrate the new perspectives and strategic insights provided.

A success story using this approach

Following a dinner we facilitated for a large organisation, the Chair reflected that he thought the board had just had one of their best strategic discussions in 10 years.

In our experience, well-structured facilitated dinners can achieve two particularly important aims for a board

  1. They help directors build deeper relationships, trust and rapport with each other, their CEO and executive team, and
  2. They enable the board and CEO to build alignment and unity about the organisation’s challenges, opportunities and its long-term direction


If you’d like to get our advice or feedback on your plans for scheduling or structuring your board dinners please Contact Us.

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