December 20, 2016

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Joseph Inskeep

Who’s Around the Table?

Are your board members chosen for name recognition? For their management skills? For their connections or fund-raising capacity? For their ability to work as a productive team?

Boards and managers do very different yet equally essential work. Boards govern, not manage.

The board’s added value is in strategic leadership more than prominence or management skills.

Boards serve on behalf of the ownership (shareholders or “moral” owners) as a whole, rather than on behalf of discrete sub-components. “Representational” boards composed of stakeholder advocates can easily become balkanized and counterproductive. At the same time, a board that doesn’t grasp and embrace the diversity of its ownership undermines its own leadership. Board work requires members who thoughtfully balance both the diversity and wholeness of the ownership served.

Of course, good managers, people whose names are well known and those who share stakeholder perspectives can all be effective board members. But their governance contribution will come from something more. What is that something?

For simple starters, board members must be willing to put in time and effort. Where people feel inspired and inclined to serve but aren’t able to commit to the work, governance will not be effective.

John Carver, the creator of the Policy Governance® system, says that once at the table “the central interpersonal challenge the board faces is to convert divergent views into a single official view. To weaken the multiplicity of viewpoints would be to rob the board of the richness of its wisdom. To weaken the unity of voice would be to rob the board of its opportunity for effectiveness.”1 So diversity of viewpoints is critical, as is the ability to collaborate effectively with others to sharpen that divergence into policy and good decisions. People who have the courage to speak and the flexibility to collaborate strengthen their boards.

The heart of board work is visionary, conceptual and strategic. Boards look up and forward toward the horizon to define their organization’s future. Not everyone is inspired by that kind of work. Many of us prefer making something happen now; we want less visioning, less nuanced talk and more action. Thank goodness for these people, and for those who genuinely enjoy the governance work of strategic foresight as well.

Lastly, within boundaries established in policy, boards members should be able to empower others. After all, in order for the organization to create the benefits the board seeks, boards must delegate. People at the table should accept that to exercise their authority effectively they must give most of it away. However, delegating authority is not equivalent to abdicating accountability. It becomes easier for responsible members to delegate once they understand that rigorous accountability through systematic monitoring is a cornerstone of Policy Governance.

Remember that while the board table has only so many seats, the boardroom itself can be expanded at will. A board is never constrained by the body of knowledge sitting at the table. It can always reach out in consultation to access the insights of stakeholders and experts all around. Boards sometimes forget how many willing and able people could contribute important perspectives and insights to the deliberation.

In the end it’s not only who is at the table, but also who is in the conversation, that determines the effectiveness of governance decisions.

1John Carver, Boards That Make A Difference. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006, page 276.

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