Sounds like a trivial question, but where everyone sits not only reflects organizational philosophy, it sends a strong, visual message to everyone about authority, participation, and the role of the board.
How is a board meeting affected by where the board chair and the executive director sit? Where each sits, particularly in relation to each other, sends a message and influences how the meeting may go. Some board chairs and execs make a point of sitting next to one another at the head of the table: a clear signal about their authority and their partnership.
Reader M.K. Wegman of the National Network is even more detailed: "The board chair sits between the CEO and the COO at the top of the U." And executive director Roger L. explores the idea but rejects it: "Most board presidents have wanted me to sit right next to them so that I could provide tidbits of information as necessary or write a brief note regarding another member's comments. I have always found these activities a bit disconcerting. . . I prefer to sit directly across from the board president: this gives an opportunity to send body messages to show where I am standing on an issue, and vice versa. This way we can convey nearly the same messages without appearing obvious."
Many board chairs and executive directors choose to sit at opposite ends of the table to encourage participation from other board members. But Garry Owens notes that if the chair and ED sit at opposite ends, the board members "feel as though they are at a tennis match looking back and forth."
We like executive director Darrel Wilson's thoughtfulness: "I sit at mid-table at a right angle where I can see the president. Some board members always sit in the same place, so I move a bit to sit next to different people."
Should staff sit at the board table?
We were surprised at the apparent lack of thought given to where the staff should sit or whether they should even attend the board meeting. Reader Mary Lynn noted that "most staff come only when they 'have to.'" Reader N.F. commented that the staff never attends board meetings and, as a result, they "never have a chance to express an opinion or hear first-hand the board's opinions and ideas."
Where should staff sit? "Wherever" was what more than one reader responded, or "at the table." But if too many staff are physically at the table, it may be much harder for the board to feel as a cohesive group. It may also be a challenge for board members to remember who are their fellow board members and who are staff. Yvonne Hudson suggests that board members cluster at one end of the table opposite from the end where the chair and the ED sit. We also like Bryan Smith's suggestion that staff who will be giving reports or participating in a discussion should sit at the table, but others should "retire to the gallery" to strengthen the board's sense of self.
The takeaway? If thoughtful seating can help you get a leg up on achieving a particular goal at a board meeting, why not be strategic about it. So think about what messages you want to send, and sit accordingly. It's not a trivial question after all.
Jan Masaoka is editor of Blue Avocado, and a frequent speaker and author on nonprofit boards. She is former executive director of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, and currently on the board of New America Media. She wrote Best of the Board Cafe, now in its Second Edition, available here.
See also in Blue Avocado: