Expert Coaching. Practical Resources.

August 1, 2017


Andrew Bergen

Setting Your Sails

If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.      

I am not a sailor. In fact, I’ve never even been on a moving sailboat in my life. But I’m fascinated whenever I have the chance to watch sailing. I recently was in San Diego and spent time watching the sailboats in the harbor.

Of course, sailing is powered exclusively by the wind. And, this particular afternoon while watching the boats in the harbor, the wind was against the boats as they made their way back to the marina after an evening sail. At first glance, this seems like an impossible task – but this is where the technique of “tacking” comes into play. Sailors use a headwind to zig zag toward their destination little by little.

Boards face headwinds in their work as well. Often, those headwinds are formidable and the task of forward movement seems impossible. However, it is possible to use the energy of these difficult situations in order to make progress. The reason I was in San Diego was for a conference on governance. One of the sessions that week was a panel conversation with four people who had been through challenging times with their board. All four boards found their way through these difficult times and were at the place of thriving again.

While listening to this panel, it struck me that there are three general ways boards can keep their focus and not get blown off course:

  1. Continue to listen to your owners. What are the values that the ownership holds? What are their hopes, fears and needs? While in difficult times, it is often the case that a particular subset or interest group of the ownership becomes very loud. It is important to hear these voices – and it is equally important to ensure that you are listening to voices beyond those special interest groups. Find ways to engage with representative samples of the entire ownership group.
  2. Continue to focus on your Ends. What is the reason for the organization’s existence? What benefit is the organization intended to produce – and for whom? What is it worth to the ownership to produce those benefits? Headwinds often show up in the form of “means” issues. While addressing any concerns the board might have about means (in the form of Executive Limitations), make sure you don’t lose focus on your ultimate reason for your existence.
  3. Be diligent and honest about self-evaluation. Is the board as a whole continuing to behave according to its own expectations of itself as defined in Governance Process and Board Management Delegation policies? Further, during times of headwinds, it is common for one or more board members to add to the difficulty the board is facing. Refuse to let one person derail board progress. Be willing to engage in respectful conversations that address any unwanted or unhelpful behaviors.

That evening in San Diego, as the sun was setting, all boats made it back to their safe harbor. Your board can as well when it keeps its focus on the right things.



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