Expert Coaching. Practical Resources.

June 17, 2020

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Richard Stringham

Boards Can Change the World; But Only with Gut-Wrenching Honesty

Worldwide protests sparked by the death of George Floyd have some asking if this will be the turning point in history that is so badly needed. Calls are being made for every institution at every level to tackle the pervasive and systemic racism.

I’m a white male in his mid-sixties living in an affluent Canadian city (in spite of the current economic downturn). In this time and place, I have to ask myself what I have done to contribute to the systemic racism, what I haven’t done to address it, and what I need to do from here on in. To be clear, I don’t think of myself as a racist, which I expect is part of the problem.

Frankly, it would be easier to just ignore the issue and continue thinking that I’m not part of the problem. I think that is a fear so many have: that this will blow over and we’ll be back to where we were.

Recently, Govern for Impact was one of the many organizations putting out a call to action for governing boards. I applaud that call; but I have to tell you, I’m also concerned.

I have coached many boards over the years and it is difficult for boards to be honest with themselves when it comes to critical self-examination. When a board uses Policy Governance, it has a marvelous system for self-evaluation: it sets its expectations of itself in policies and then it examines its performance against those expectations.

Are various individual board members and/or committees trying to direct the CEO when our policies say that we should speak with “one voice”? Are our board committees operating according to their charters/terms of reference? Are we linking with our ownership to understand their values and aspirations for the organization as our policy states? Or are we simply relying on customer surveys and/or the annual meeting to justify in our minds that we’ve had meaningful connections?

So very often I’ve seen boards assess themselves on these and other matters as: “Compliant. No need for change,” when the evidence is starkly otherwise.

As individuals, it is difficult enough to challenge our own thinking. Cognitive bias is both our friend and our foe. It enables humans to operate more efficiently while blinding us to reality.

When we come together in groups, this is even more challenging. If you’ve ever raised an idea that is outside the norm of the group only to see it shot down in a flash of group denial, you know what I mean. And a threat to its identity may bring a board together into a group think mode in which the walls go up to preserve the board’s current self-image. Truth becomes a casualty.

Many of us, especially privileged white males such as myself, will have to park our egos to recognize, understand, and make the changes we need to combat our deep-rooted and long-denied racism. With the additional challenges facing boards, they will require moral courage and tenacity. I for one, do not know the answers; but that should not stop me from pursuing them. Boards must do the same. This is the opportunity for boards to undertake bold, candid self-examination. It is a time to say that we can and should do better. It is a time to struggle with the uncomfortable. Honestly!

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