Expert Coaching. Practical Resources.

July 24, 2019

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Paul Zilz

Three Types of Questions Your Board Should Ask Owners

I once served on a non-profit board comprised of passionate board members focused on improving the lives of those residing in our community. In an effort to shift the board’s focus from internal operational issues, I suggested the board seek input from members of our community about what community needs they saw that were not sufficiently met. From this input, we as a board could better understand the values of our “owners” which in turn could help us govern more effectively.

Once your board recognizes that it’s accountable to your organization’s “owners” and has an obligation to connect with them, it is important to design an ownership linkage plan that ensures the board obtains insights into ownership values about the right issues.

Think of your organization’s owners as the people on whose behalf the board determines what benefits the organization should produce, who those benefits are for, and how much they are worth (in shorthand, we’ll call these Ends issues). Your organization may have legal owners, such as members or shareholders, and/or your organization may have moral owners; perhaps the local community if your service organization is a non-profit, or taxpayers if your organization is a government-funded body.

Regular ownership linkage involves intentional and constructive dialogue and deliberation between owners and board members primarily around Ends issues. By engaging in such linkage, the board gains insight into ownership values.

Once your board has identified representative ownership segments to approach and has determined the best method(s) of reaching those segments, the board should develop appropriate questions to obtain input on Ends issues.

The three most powerful types of ownership linkage Ends-related questions are “what” questions, “why” questions, and future-focused questions. These three types of questions add the most value to the board’s governing work on the owners’ behalf. Whereas “what” and “why” questions are more likely to elicit responses that will help inform the board’s Ends work, “how” questions will likely elicit responses about operational means that have been delegated by the board to the CEO, and thus the board should avoid using “how.” Additionally, questions framed to help owners look into the future help the board ensure that its Ends are sufficiently focused on the future and not pre-occupied only with the present.

Imagine how your board’s agenda and discussions would have more added value after your board sought to understand ownership values by asking what, why, and future questions! Here are a couple of examples:

WHAT Questions:

  • What is the most important specific difference that our organization should make in the lives of the people we serve in order to remain relevant over the long term?

WHY Questions:

  • Look at the following list of outcomes that our organization might offer the people we serve:
    • Which one seems most important? Why?
    • Which one seems least important? Why?

FUTURE Questions:

  • In the next 5-10 years, what do you believe will be the most significant challenges facing the people we serve? Why?

If your board would appreciate assistance in thinking more strategically and governing more accountably with a focus on the future, please contact us.

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