Expert Coaching. Practical Resources.

December 12, 2017


Paul Zilz

Three Steps to Improve Board Effectiveness

You may be an Executive Director, CEO, or Pastor who is concerned about board effectiveness and whether or not the board of the organization you serve has the proper strategic mindset to govern well. I know some foundations also are concerned about “board development” and are providing grants to improve board effectiveness. You may be a board member who senses that the board on which you serve is not operating optimally. Perhaps you are pondering if the board understands its proper role in the “chain of command.” Maybe you wonder whether or not the board is supposed to be so involved in the details of managing the organization. Or perhaps you contemplate if board members have the proper skill sets and perspectives to govern well.

Here are three fundamental steps to improve your board’s ability to govern well:

1. Govern collectively as a servant leader. This may seem obvious, but my experience serving on boards and coaching boards is that this concept and its ramifications are not well understood. First things first: Notice I said govern, and not manage. John Carver, a renowned expert on governance, states that the “purpose of governance is to ensure, usually on behalf of others, that an organization achieves what it should achieve while avoiding those behaviors and situations that should be avoided.”1

The board serves as the link between the operating organization and those who invest in the mission of the organization. Because the board serves as this unique link in the organization’s chain of command, the proper role of the board is to govern, not manage, the organization, and the board derives its authority from those whom it serves. Consequently, the board should identify and connect with those people that Carver refers to as an organization’s legal owners and “moral owners,” including those in the organization’s “community of interest,” that is, those who are invested in the mission.

The purpose of intentionally identifying and connecting with these owners is primarily to ensure that the board properly delineates three strategic imperatives, what Carver calls Ends: a) the targeted recipients who are to receive the b) targeted benefits produced by the organization, and c) the worth of producing those results. As servant leader, the board must first listen to its owners before it can determine the organization’s strategic direction as stated in its Ends. Does your board know who its owners are? Has it written this in policy and identified a plan to connect with them in order to determine the Ends above? Only then can the board determine Ends that are based on its owners’ values – Ends that define the difference your organization will make in the world, and which then drive the subsequent strategic planning done by management.

2. Use accountable delegation to achieve the Ends above while avoiding the unethical and imprudent actions that the board, as the informed agent of the organization’s owners, establishes in policy. Accountable delegation is the exchange of authority for demonstrated performance and requires all four of the following:

  • The board clearly expresses its expectations in policy regarding who is to receive what benefits and what those results are worth (Ends) as well as which means the CEO is prohibited from using to achieve those Ends, even if they worked (Executive Limitations)
  • The board unambiguously assigns one person, for whom we are using the functional title of CEO, to meet those expectations,
  • The CEO provides a reasonable interpretation of each of those policy expectations by providing the standard or metric used to show compliance with the board’s policy, the level of the standard that will represent compliance, and the rationale for both, and
  • The board ensures that the evidence provided demonstrates compliance with those reasonable interpretations (monitoring).

These four steps will ensure that your delegation process is both fair to the CEO, by whatever name called, and also ensures accountability for the proper achievement of the Ends.

3. Recruit board members who have qualities consistent with your stated governing style. Often those qualities include having a passion for the organization’s mission, a commitment to connect with the ownership, an ability to think in terms of systems and context and to see the big picture, a willingness to delegate the operational details to others, an ability to think long term and strategically, an ability to assess the values underlying the actions taken in the organization and to formulate policy based on those values, an ability and willingness to participate assertively in deliberation while respecting the opinions of others, a commitment not to make judgments in the absence of previously stated written criteria, and a commitment to adhere to the board’s written code of conduct and to honor board decisions. Having board members with the above qualities helps increase the probability that the board will govern more effectively. Remember, you are looking for people who can effectively govern, not manage, the organization!

If you want help implementing these steps, please refer to our services & solutions page  for numerous resources that will get you started in the process of improving your board’s ability to govern with excellence.


1 John Carver, Boards That Make a Difference, Third Edition, San Francisco:  Jossey Bass, 2006.



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