Great governance doesn’t just happen; it is created intentionally!
BoardSource, a recognized leader in board governance, defines solid governance: “Successful organizations have engaged boards with members who are passionate about the organization’s mission, who ask challenging questions and make informed decisions, who collaborate with each other, and who promote the organization and its work to their contacts.” I often encounter organizations that want to engage their boards in meaningful ways like this but struggle to understand how. They often view their board as an adversary versus an ally, and as a liability versus an asset. So how does one turn this mentality around?
First and foremost, let’s be clear on what is “good” governance versus what is “great” governance. Good governance is achieved with boards that show up, make the traditional agenda motions and approvals, vote and listen to the committee reports. They care about the mission and the organization, but often don’t allow themselves to step outside the traditional boundaries and “dream” as to what the organization could be. They focus on the historical perspectives, where the organization has been, and often step into the day-to-day management of the organization versus looking ahead strategically. This behavior forces the board into a never-ending spiral of mediocrity.
Great governance, on the other hand, involves a board that puts the organization’s needs ahead of all else, keeping the mission in the forefront and constantly examining ways to increase mission impact. Great boards are thinking holistically about the organization’s future and applying “out of the box” visioning to deepen mission impact. In examining ways of building such a body of “good governors,” one must begin with some clear fundamentals.
First, everyone must have unanimous alignment with the mission. Clarity of what the organization needs to drive impact is fundamental to solid performance. For instance, at a board meeting of an organization that serves disadvantaged children, one board member proposes a new program to drive impact in serving children. He suggests opening a new daycare center for preschoolers since the community need is so great, but the mission and vision of the organization clearly state that the population it serves is K thru 12. This board member underscores that the need is so great and that this preschool population cannot be overlooked! He becomes combative with anyone who objects to his viewpoint and causes undue stress in the boardroom. While his intentions may be good, they fail to align with the mission and would cause an unnecessary drain on already strained resources. Mission alignment is critical.
Second, everyone must understand what their role is and personal contribution will be. Board members who fail to engage in meaningful work will look for other, less productive, ways to contribute. Aligning a board member’s skill with the organization’s needs is vitally important in moving the needle in board engagement. It all starts with the organization having a clear set of goals and outline of the resources needed to accomplish them. The next step is to map those needs to the potential resources the board can bring. This can be a great conversation to begin with the CEO and governance committee and, using the board skills matrix, then identify suitable board member matches based on skill and personal interest.
Third is building in accountability metrics for the board that are succinct and achievable. There are numerous examples of scorecards for boards, but simpler is better. It’s important that the board work in partnership with the staff toward common goals that advance the mission. The scorecard should outline specific ownership, deliverables and timeframes from the board and the staff liaison. The board should be viewed as an asset that can bring value to the efforts the staff already has underway and not create additional work.
Fourth, the board needs to build a strong partnership with its only employee, the CEO. The board chair should work to cultivate that relationship built on honesty, respect and a shared vision. The chair, along with the CEO, works to articulate clearly the governance role of the board and the management role of the chief executive.
Finally, the work of the board should be enriching and enjoyable. As a group of volunteers, the board should thoroughly understand the work and enjoy engaging in it while making an impact. With the plethora of activities that are available for one to spend one’s free time, board members should enjoy what they volunteer to do! Boards provide the opportunity to make an impact while building community connections among like-minded individuals. Long-lasting friendships often emerge and offer opportunities for a deeper engagement in the community. According to BoardSource, if we provide board members with a vison of what is possible and a way to add lasting value to the organization they lead, success follows.
Katherine Cecala, CEO and president of Junior Achievement of Arizona, who has served on more than 40 boards of directors, sums it up: “To build a great board there has to be passion for the mission, a clear understanding of board roles, board accountability and, most importantly, have fun!” Let’s begin deepening capacity through great governance!
Bruce Weber is founder and president/CEO at Weber Group. Weber brings more than 20 years of experience to the for-profit and nonprofit community, working with startup, growth and mature organizations. His focus is in strengthening organizations through strategic planning, organizational development, leadership and board development. He is a BoardSource Certified Governance trainer and a founding partner of the Nonprofit Lifecycles Institute.
Charlie Smith is managing partner at the Weber Group. Smith brings decades of experience in the financial services industry, including an extensive background working within organizations to develop high-performance teams. His focus is working with nonprofit CEOs, executive directors and board chairs to build smarter high-performance organizations focused on strategy and execution. He is a BoardSource Certified Consultant, a certified 6 Sigma Black Belt and a Master Black Belt in planning.