October 14, 2020


Rose Mercier

Taking Care of What’s Important

In the early years of my consulting career, I was frequently involved with personal and professional leadership development projects. A frequent reference in those years was Steven Covey and his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People[1]. One of Covey’s many insightful concepts offers food for thought for boards, in general, and reinforces the positive outcomes of the implementation of Policy Governance®.

I have always valued how the Time Management MatrixTM reminds you to be conscious about the activities that occupy your time and to understand the impact of focusing on what’s important rather than what’s urgent. On the premise that the factors that determine how we use our time are the importance of something and the urgency of something, the matrix’s four quadrants categorize actions into (1) Important & Urgent, (2) Important & Not Urgent, (3) Urgent & Not Important, and (4) Not Urgent & Not Important. One of the reasons boards adopt Policy Governance® is because they recognize they are spending most of their time on urgent activities – the left side of the matrix – and not spending sufficient time thinking about the longer-range big picture. The urgent usually arises from the day to day management issues, with the most urgent or most significant appearing on the board’s agenda. The board’s agenda can be hijacked by urgent and often operational crises, and less important operational activities, reports from committees, and so on. A board can become addicted to the sense of accomplishment and control that comes from spending most of its time in crisis management. Hence, the name given to the quadrant of unimportant urgent activities – Quadrant of Deception.[2]


A board agenda overflowing with operational decisions can also lead to an entangled view of governance and management roles. The search for role clarity is another reason boards are attracted to the Policy Governance system.

It must be said that not all activity on the urgent half of the quadrant is unproductive. A board needs to spend time making decisions that are Urgent & Important. An organization needs a governing board to apply its experience and expertise to the organization’s challenges. There will always be crises that require the application of board wisdom.

However, if a board puts off work which is Important & Not Urgent to a future meeting when it has more time, that important work eventually becomes urgent. In most cases, this means the board spends less time than is needed to do that work well. Imagine the impact on governance excellence if a board shortchanges itself on the time it allocates to board education, policy development, and strategic foresight – all of which one could characterize as important & not urgent.

Think about how boards have had to deal with the Important & Urgent issues arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. If a board had not devoted sufficient, unhurried time to translating its values into policies, determining the results to be produced and unacceptable conditions to be avoided, ensuring clarity of board and CEO roles, and having the skills to hold the CEO accountable for the use of delegated authority – it is likely the board would have had to clear its agendas to deal with the crises and at the same time try to figure out how to place its decision in a larger context. Or, make less than optimal decisions. The unfortunate consequence of not doing the important work as a regular part of the board’s annual schedule is that everything feels urgent and the board lacks the framework for differentiating between the important and not important.

Policy Governance enables boards to understand what work is important to governing with excellence and to schedule that work so that it accomplished on an ongoing basis. It also enables a board to differentiate between its role and the CEO’s. As a result, the organization is prepared if unexpected situations or crises arrive that require the board’s attention.

If your board is not spending enough time on what’s important to governing effectively, we would happy to introduce you to a governing system that will change that.

[1] Copyrights and Trademarks ©1986, 1996, 1998 Franklin Covey Co.

[2] First Things First. Stephen R. Covey, A. Roger Merrill, Rebecca A. Merrill. Simon & Schuster (1994) p. 38.

[3]First Things First. Stephen R. Covey, A. Roger Merrill, Rebecca A. Merrill. Simon & Schuster (1994) p. 37.