Let me open by sharing a line that I use to explain the role of my association’s board and its importance to achieving our mission:
“It’s called a board of directors, not a board of doers.”
Have you, as staff or a board member, ever expressed similar sentiment?
There are certain types of high value work that your board should be focusing on, like strategy, long-term planning, and big organizational shifts, instead of day-to-day operational work. Here are three key concepts to help refocus a board gone adrift.
The board is responsible for the direction of an organization. It’s an obligation in sustainability to think long term to ensure the health of the organization for future generations. If they get bogged down in the minutiae of day-to-day operations, they’re not practicing good governance. As a board member, you don’t need to worry about the things a staff person should be handling. You’re here for a reason, so let’s use your time wisely!
Looking towards the future, not everything is going to be wonderful. You have to acknowledge possibilities that you might rather avoid, centering the common purpose of doing the best you can for the organization.
To use an analogy, think of foresight like parenting. If you are raising a child by thinking only about their needs and wants in that exact moment, without planning for their future and considering the implications for what they could need later, you’re doing your child a disservice. You’re not going to be able to provide everything they need later. That doesn’t make you the best parent!
Boards need to take communication and collaboration seriously. One useful tactic for framing solutions to this is radical candor, defined by Kim Scott in her book and TED Talk. The fundamentals of radical candor are honesty and transparency. In the context of governance, it allows boards to have open and respectful conversations during the decision-making process.
Radical candor is about keeping disagreement healthy. It helps your board to broaden their mind collectively and have a more rounded perspective when decision making. If everyone agrees about everything, that may signal a fundamental problem on your board.
Dissent is important because it also gives you a preview of what emerging board leaders might think about an issue coming up in the future. Most organizations I know have a rotating board, where the voices present today will be replaced in a few years. If the group is disagreeing, look at those voices that are going to be around for a while - you might take heed of what they’re saying.
Disagreement is healthy, so long as everyone’s getting their voice heard and provided that in the end, the group collectively commits to move forward towards the shared mission and vision of the organization.
Within association boards, different perspectives and experiences are valuable and beneficial. It all begins with the recruitment process. We usually find it easier to work with people similar to us, which is problematic when it comes to building a diverse board. Instead of taking the easy option and hiring an acquaintance, be more strategic when you are bringing in new directors.
A needs-gap analysis may help you to understand what’s missing - both in terms of background and skill set - and match prospective volunteers with your needs. Wherever they come from, an analysis will help you bring people to the table who can benefit your organization overall.