Expert Coaching. Practical Resources.

January 13, 2021


Rose Mercier

With Apologies to Julia Child – The Art of Governance through Mastery of First Principles

Every once in while, I read something that produces an ‘eureka’ moment. That happened last week when an article about Julia Child was brought to my attention. If you knew how much I enjoy being creative in the kitchen, you might not be surprised I responded enthusiastically to the Farnham Street post.[1] But it wasn’t really about Julia Child, or even about cooking. It was about the essential importance of mastering first principles in any domain about which you are serious. Julia Child pursued mastery of first principles of cooking which in turn produced her success as a chef.

If your idea of cooking is spreading cream cheese on a toasted bagel, a freezer-to-oven meal makes you nervous, success with recipes is hit-and-miss, and the need to substitute ingredients sends you running to order pizza, your mastery of first principles in cooking may be incomplete. Even the ability to follow a recipe doesn’t mean you know how to cook.

What if you need baking soda but only have baking powder? What if you are cooking at sea level? You need to adapt the recipe for your Vegan friends? Your partner calls at the last minute to let you know a prospective client is coming for dinner and the choices in your fridge and cupboards is limited. If you have mastered first principles, none of these situations would leave you puzzled.

My ‘eureka’ realization is that mastery of first principles in cooking – well, any domain really – has a perfect parallel in governance. A board can follow a recipe – more often called a best practice; in fact, it can follow a whole book of best practices. That doesn’t mean it will produce excellence in governance. My colleagues and I have worked with many, many boards who assembled patchworks of best practices and asked for our help because the recipes hadn’t produced the effectiveness the board thought it should. After all, these were best practices, weren’t they?

The reason I am so passionate about Policy Governance® is I have discovered that as you deepen your understanding of its “first” principles and fundamental concepts and processes, it is possible to support any board on a path toward governance excellence. A board can be large or small; the organizational structure can be simple or complex; an external authority may impose specific requirements. A board may be stewarding a brand new or well established organization. A board may be governing an organization with no paid staff or a staff numbering in the hundreds. Governance may need to be tailored to organizational or societal cultures. But it is possible – by applying those first principles.

Consider the breadth of organizations in which boards are applying Policy Governance tailored to the combination of factors or characteristics which make them unique: nonprofit organizations, public and private school boards, community colleges, public agencies, hospitals, registered charities, foundations, unions with elected board and elected staff, professional regulatory organizations, private professional firms, trade associations, churches and mission-based groups, share-based corporations, pension plans, trusts, cooperatives, Indigenous organizations – at local, state or provincial, national and international levels.

Perhaps now you can appreciate the folly of every board building its own cookbook from an assemblage of best practice recipes instead of applying a governing system that uses first principles which can be tailored to any context. I prefer Julia Child…oops, I mean a Policy Governance consultant who can use first principles thinking. If your board has been searching for a governance chef who can support you in producing governance excellence – get in touch.




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