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Article Published: 15 Sep 2018

Coaching Board Members to Succeed

Opera companies are experts when it comes to singers. They know how to coach, rehearse, encourage and affirm high-caliber performers on the stage. Too often, these same companies don’t realize that applying the same supportive techniques to their trustees will produce high-caliber performers in the boardroom — and in the community — as well.

Marc A. Scorca, president and CEO of OPERA America, sat down with Michelle Myers, associate director for strategy and organizational development at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, to learn how one company nurtures its board to deliver results for the benefit of the organization and city.

MARC A. SCORCA: I was very impressed by the engagement and hospitality of the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis board of directors when we came to town for Opera Conference 2018 this June. You share responsibility for the engagement of your company’s board members with your general director. Tell me about your role.

MICHELLE MYERS: We have a large board: currently 55 voting members, 5 ex-officio members and 14 life members. And it is incredibly active and engaged, which I think is key to the success of our company. But it’s important to have the staff to support it. A big part of my role at Opera Theatre is to work with our board members and ensure they are informed, engaged and equipped to make decisions and lead on our behalf.

MARC: I think a lot of companies do not appreciate fully the amount of support needed for a board to be a good board. What do you consider the most important things you do?

MICHELLE: There are two key parts. The first is logistical: preparing all the reports and minutes for board and committee meetings. I strive to make sure they’re not only accurate, but also clear and easy to understand, so we can keep our meetings focused on actual discussion and decisions. The second part is maintaining relationships one-on-one. It’s incredibly important to keep board members engaged, so they feel connected to the company and to the mission.

MARC: I hear of companies with a total of three staff people and 35 board members, and I say to myself, “How can you maintain relationships with that many people? How can you make every trustee feel individually purposeful each year? How can each person feel like he or she is contributing something to the health of the company, beyond just a contribution?”

MICHELLE: Exactly. It could be easy to lose track of them. Then they feel disengaged and the relationships start to erode. Your board members bring such skill, insight and passion. You want to make sure that you have some of your strongest relationships with them and that they are recognized and valued for everything they contribute.

MARC: How do you affirm that with your board members?

MICHELLE: We make sure our trustees are not only knowledgeable about the financial and business aspects of the company, but all the programming as well. We make it a point at every board meeting to dedicate time for matters that aren’t just financial reports. We talk about the art and our programs. And we invite them to come. Of course, then we follow up — and refollow up — to make sure that each board member is there, if he or she can be.

MARC: Do you follow up with each board member in a similar way about meeting attendance or other responsibilities?

MICHELLE: Yes! I might reach out and say, “We missed you at the last couple of meetings. Can I take you to coffee and update you on what’s happening?” When it comes to other commitments, like bringing a friend to a performance who might be a prospective donor, we try to take good notes about what each person has committed to and follow up — not just to see if it’s happening, but to see if there is information or assistance they might need. Sometimes our chair or committee chair might reach out if their relationship is stronger.

MARC: How do you keep board members informed between meetings?

MICHELLE: I put together a communication plan each year for the board. That way, even in the months when we don’t have a board meeting, we have planned communication, even if it’s just a quick update from the general director or from me about what’s happening in the coming weeks. We try to be strategic about our communications, which is why I think the overarching plan is helpful.

MARC: A lot of people from companies with budgets that are a fraction of yours will read this interview. They long to have one more person in the development department to do what you do. What advice would you have for smaller companies about delivering this personal attention to their board members?

MICHELLE: You have to make it a priority. It does take time, but I think having strong relationships with each board member can only positively impact other areas of one’s organization.

At Opera Theatre, although it might be in my job description that I work with the board, I rely on all of my colleagues to share the relationships. And I think there are ways to get board members involved and engage them in helping with the work that needs to be done. You can recruit them, one by one, as allies in building relationships with their peers. But staff will still need to take the lead.

"Having strong relationships with each board member can only positively impact other areas of one’s organization."

MARC: I can imagine that a strong board chair might also step up to assist the staff at a small company. The partnership between board members and staff can be really transformative for an organization. What have been the benefits of OTSL’s investment in such proactive board member management?

MICHELLE: You are absolutely right. We are fortunate to have a wonderful board, led by our amazing chair, Noémi Neidorff. Our board members are incredibly engaged and informed about the company. That allows them to go out in the community and be our best ambassadors. They’re the ones bringing their friends and colleagues to our productions and programs. They’re the ones who are out there talking with corporations and foundations in the community. They’re the ones taking the lead and making generous financial gifts to the company. So I think the benefit is that we have incredibly passionate people who are well informed and excited about the company.

And another benefit is this: It is so rewarding to me and my fellow staff members to get to know our trustees and to hear why they’re excited about being on the board and supporting the organization. The board drives much of the spirit of a company. The partnership between the staff and the board helps shape the culture that makes us unique.

This article was published in the Fall/Winter 2018 issue of Across the Board, a publication of OPERA America for opera company trustees.