February 28, 2017

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Jannice Moore

March Hare, Mad Hatter or the Duchess?

When recently re-reading some excerpts from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it struck me that they are scarily similar to some board policies I’ve seen in my experience. Perhaps as boards we can take some lessons from Alice’s adventure about writing policies.

Write them – succinctly.

“I quite agree with you,” said the Duchess, “and the moral of that is – ‘Be what you would seem to be’ – or if you’d like it put more simply – ‘Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.”

“I think I should understand that better,” Alice said very politely, “if I had it written down but I can’t quite follow it as you say it.”

“That’s nothing to what I could say if I chose,” the Duchess replied, in a pleased tone.

“Pray don’t trouble yourself to say it any longer than that,” said Alice.” (Chapter 9)

I know a good number of CEOs who might echo Alice’s request. First, write it down – in clearly stated policies. Don’t expect the CEO to mind-read the intent of a board’s verbal discussion – “Oh, the CEO knows what we intended because she was there for the discussion.” – Second, make it succinct. When it comes to policy writing, less is more. 

Say what you mean – clearly.

“I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles – I believe I can guess that,” she [Alice] added aloud;

“Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?” said the March Hare.

“Exactly so,” said Alice.

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

“I do,” Alice hastily replied, “at least – at least I mean what I say – that’s the same thing, you know.”

“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!” (Chapter 7)

When writing your policies, consider various ways in which they might reasonably be interpreted. Then clarify them so that they exclude interpretations the board would not consider prudent, ethical or consistent with owner values. Say what you mean.

Stop when you’re done.

“The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please, Your Majesty?” he asked.

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, and go on till you come to the end, then stop.” (Chapter 12)

Indeed! Begin at the beginning. What are the board’s highest level values in a given area? State them clearly and concisely. What outcomes do you expect from the organization? What situations or actions would be imprudent or unethical? What does the board itself value in its own processes? In each area, decide if you need to drill down to a lower level to be sufficiently clear, until a majority of board members are satisfied that any reasonable interpretation the CEO could make of what you have said would be acceptable. Then stop.

Since I’ve begun at the beginning, said what I meant to say, hopefully said it clearly and succinctly, and leave it up to any reasonable interpretation the reader may make, I shall stop!

Author

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