Expert Coaching. Practical Resources.

August 26, 2021


Richard Stringham

Holding On for Dear Life …… or Death!

In my days as a much younger man I was invited to join friends for a weekend of canoeing on a river which included some exciting sections of rapids.  Although not requiring a high level of white-water skills, it was nonetheless challenging especially for a novice such as myself.  I had done a fair bit of lake paddling to this point but never whitewater.  My paddling companion was even less experienced, having had no canoeing or kayaking experience.

Considering our lack of experience, we did remarkably well, especially since we were using a lake canoe designed more for straight line travel and not quick maneuvering in rapids.  However, our luck gave way as we entered a set of rapids only to be swamped.  How it is that we did not capsize, I’ll never know.

As memorable as that part of the trip was, the kicker came when drying ourselves by a campfire that our companions had built when we got to shore at the end of that run of whitewater.  Scott, who was an experienced whitewater canoeist, was offering us solace, but then thought it important to add a piece of advice:  “Of course, you know that if you had capsized, you should not hold onto the boat.”

I was incredulous.  “What do you mean? I’ve always been taught to hang on to the boat if it goes over!”

Scott patiently replied, “That’s a good idea on a lake.  But in whitewater, if you hold on to the boat, your head may end up between a fast moving boat and an immovable rock!  Better to hold onto the paddle as it is more easily lost in whitewater and will be really handy if we are able to retrieve your canoe.”

Years of “hold onto the boat” exhortations suddenly had no wisdom in this new and different world.  Indeed, what was a best practice, intended to save your life, could jeopardise your life in a different water system!

I see this a lot with board members coming in from other types of board experiences, usually governance built upon management approaches rather than a system built upon a set of governance principles (as is the case with Policy Governance).  A best practice in management is not necessarily a best practice in governance, especially when using Policy Governance. Here are a few common examples:

  • Approving the budget rather than governing from pre-determined values of prudence and ethics in fiscal responsibility and efficiencies in Ends policies.
  • Adding criteria for measuring the CEO’s performance in addition to achievement of the Ends and compliance with Executive Limitations policies.  Isn’t rigorous monitoring against a comprehensive set of policies more than sufficient to determine CEO performance?  A “360” might be appropriate for management to assess employees and perhaps for a CEO to conduct a self-assessment, but it is not going to provide the evidence needed to determine compliance with expectations pre-stated in policy.
  • Mistaking strategic planning for strategic thinking by focusing on plans (including goals) and losing sight of the what the organization is for (i.e., Ends).
  • Confusing activity reports with monitoring of achievement of Ends and Executive Limitations policies.
  • Mistaking a policy interpretation as being a dictionary definition or a process to achieve compliance or.
  • Thinking of ownership linkage as a public relations exercise designed to curry favour rather than a dialogue designed to create deeper understanding.

So why do we hold on to these practices when they don’t fit the system?  Obviously, in my whitewater canoeing episode, I simply didn’t know any better.  I had assumed that whitewater canoeing simply required experience using the same techniques that were used on lakes.  (“Fools rush in…”) We instinctively reach for what we know, particularly in turbulent times.  Had we capsized I would have reached for the boat and, although the moral of the above story would be the same, someone else might have been telling it!



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