Expert Coaching. Practical Resources.

July 8, 2021

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Jeffery Schau

You Have the Tools to Govern, But Are You Healthy Enough to Maximize Their Potential?

When boards seek to govern with excellence, they often seek out a system or model of governance to help guide them. In other words, they look for a tool they can wield to help them get the job done. Policy Governance® is such a tool, and a wonderful one at that. However, even with a great tool at their disposal, boards may still struggle. This can lead to blaming the tool or, for those who recognize the value in reading instruction manuals, the board’s implementation and use of the tool. In the former the board may search for a new tool to use and in the latter, seek out added training or assistance so it may use the tool more effectively. But what if there is a third option at play, hindering the board’s ability to use Policy Governance to govern with excellence? What if there is more to it than having a great tool and knowing how to use it? What if the board itself needs to be healthy enough to actually use the tool?

Back in my dentistry days, I had a wonderful team and great facilities. We were high-tech with a variety of tools at our disposal. Some of the tools I acquired did not always perform as advertised and sat on a shelf or went back to the vendor. Some required additional training to figure out how they worked to get the most bang for the buck. All this technology and knowhow helped my practice grow and succeed. But having the right tools and knowing how to use them was not enough to sustain my dental practice. There was one more critical factor that would prove to be more defining than others – my health. Despite all the wonderful things I had in my practice, nothing was able to compensate for the nerve damage that was setting in through my neck and right arm, which eventually led to my retirement from dentistry.

The same principle applies to teams and their ability to make the best decisions and get things done. Just as my physical health diminished my ability to perform dentistry, the health of a board can severely limit its ability to govern with excellence, even when it has the best tools and knowledge at its disposal. Fortunately for boards, there are ways in which they can become healthy. To help understand the “how,” let’s first take a look at the “why.”

Why is board health important?

You may have heard a saying that goes something like this, “The problem with ‘______’ is it is great in theory but falls apart when people get involved.” No matter how good something looks on paper, people have a way of messing it up. We see this with teams as people bring in politics (personal agendas and beliefs), behavioral styles cause confusion, morale is diminished through actions or inactions, people disengage, and turnover occurs. A board, like any other team, is exposed to these same challenges, hindering its ability to achieve its purpose. The degree to which their effect is felt will depend on the health of the board. The healthier the board, the greater its ability to address these challenges (see Figure 1) while improving its ability to leverage the skills, tools, and resources available to it.

Figure 1

How to build a healthy board

According to Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, there are five behaviors, or dysfunctions that need to be overcome for a team to be healthy. They are absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results. The solution to overcoming these dysfunctions is displayed in pyramid fashion as seen in Figure 2. Let’s explore the layers to see how this model works, starting at the bottom with trust.

Figure 2

The foundation of any healthy team is vulnerability-based trust. This type of trust allows people to say they are sorry, they messed up, they need help, or they do not know the answer, and sets the stage for understanding and working together as a team.

The second level is conflict. Yes, this is something a team needs, but it needs to be the right type of conflict. A team that exhibits healthy conflict is able to present and debate ideas while avoiding personal attacks. Team members do not hold back their thoughts even when their view goes against the flow. This level of engagement allows the best ideas to surface resulting in the best decisions.

Once a decision has been made, commitment to that idea or plan of action by each team member is essential. A common barrier to commitment is lack of buy-in, often resulting from a sense of not being heard or of one’s ideas not being valued by the team. However, if trust has been established and conflict was adequately embraced, team members know they have been heard and valued, thus are more willing to commit to board decisions even when their own ideas are not included.  

Committing to a plan of action or idea is a great start, but not enough. Peer-to-peer accountability is needed to ensure everyone stays on task and follows through with the decision they agreed to. When teams have clarity and alignment around what they have committed to, they have the confidence needed to hold each other accountable and be held accountable in return. This peer-to-peer accountability is excellent for keeping a team on a path to success, impacting the nature of the results achieved.

Although each of us will act towards some form of results, the health of a team will determine which type of results the board may experience. In an unhealthy board, dysfunctional team members will strive for individual, self-serving results while in a healthy board the focus is on combined, team-based results that drive organizations to succeed. The latter can be likened to everyone on the team being in a boat rowing together to reach the same destination.

When a board successfully address all five dysfunctions, it achieves a level of health that enables it to utilize the tools needed to govern with excellence. Unfortunately, this is not a one-and-done approach. The human tendency to backslide, coupled with inevitable board member turnover, continually works to erode the health of the team. This is why it is so important not only to become healthy, but also to put a system in place to reinforce sustainability of that health. Insert the disciplines of Policy Governance.

For me, one of the biggest draws to Policy Governance was its underlying principles and components that complement and reinforce health at both the organizational and board level. It involves elements of purpose beyond that of an individual with its Ends policies, has built-in methods for declaring values and maintaining accountability through policies and monitoring, and includes a core principle of holism where the board speaks with one voice.

As your board governs, you will inevitably run into challenges. The tendency will be to blame the tool, or consider whether your implementation of it is resulting in the tool being used as intended. However, if your board is unhealthy it does not matter how much you know about the tool or which tool you use, the problems will continue to show up in different ways, leaving you continually scrambling. It may not be the easiest thing to look at oneself as the source of the problem, but as you pursue governance with excellence, are you looking for easy, or are you looking for what will work for the long haul?  If you need help, contact us at The Governance Coach™ – we can assist with how to use the tool of Policy Governance effectively, as well as helping your board team overcome the typical dysfunctions of a team.

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