Several new clients have contacted us in the past few weeks looking for help with their Boards. Two are public agencies in California. Another is a trade association.
Here are the problems that they talked about:
- Our discussions as a Board aren’t very focused
- We spend too much time talking about trivial stuff
- Our Board chair doesn’t keep our meetings focused
- We are having a hard time figuring out our role as a Board
- Some of our members don’t feel it’s worth their time to serve on our Board
For me, these issues are emblematic of a deeper problem: The Board lacks focus. It hasn’t decided what its job is – and what its job is not. Lacking clarity about its role, the Board skips from topic, depending more on individual interest than on a clear sense of the Boards’ purpose and focus.
Asking whether a Board has enough focus can be anxiety inducing. What if the answer is no? Then what do we do? I would suggest there are at least three ways to sharpen it, in order of ease:
First, and easiest, a Board can adopt a single, clear goal for the Board to achieve.
This could be a fund-raising goal, an advocacy goal, or perhaps an education goal. Whatever it is, this goal should be one that requires all Board members to work together to achieve. It should also be achievable – not so unrealistic that it becomes a source of tension or frustration.
For example, one Board we work with chose to raise $10 million to help the homeless. Another chose to educate itself about disruptive technology trends and the implications for the energy industry. A third chose to advocate for new legislation to expand voting rights.
How does a Board choose a goal? The chair could survey Board members about what goals they’d like the Board to tackle. The chair could ask the chief executive what Board-adopted goals would most benefit the organization. Whatever the means, the key is choosing a single, achievable goal that everyone supports.
Second, and admittedly harder, the Board can assume the role of driving the vision for the organization.
This will dramatically sharpen the purpose and focus of the Board. The Board could begin with self-education: inviting a series of speakers to talk to the Board about long-term trends. This could be followed by visioning exercises, designed to get Board members and senior leaders to think about how best to position the organization for success. This could be followed by articulating the collective vision in a detailed narrative. That narrative, in turn, could drive strategic planning by the CEO and management team on how best to achieve the vision.
This second option requires more resources to achieve. Among other things, it requires a facilitator—someone who can guide the process and distill the key learnings for the Board. It requires the CEO and senior staff to participate actively and assure that all perspectives are heard and understood. It requires someone to synthesize the input and draft multiple versions of the vision narrative. And, finally, it requires resources to carry it out.
Third, and perhaps hardest of all, the Board can undertake a thorough overhaul of its governance processes.
The Board can define its role and the role of the chief executive. It can define delegations to the CEO. It can articulate its “unity of control,” meaning that only decisions of the Board, acting as a body, are binding on the chief executive and the organization. The Board can assume the role of setting goals for the organization and the process for monitoring whether those goals are being achieved. Lastly, the Board can overhaul its committees and its governance processes to align with its newly-crystallized role.
There’s more to say about each of these three strategies for sharpening a Board’s focus. I do think that every Board needs a way to focus, because otherwise there is a high likelihood of Board dissatisfaction. Which brings me to the following adage:
“A Board without focus is like a ship without a rudder: It might eventually get somewhere, but it’s highly unlikely to be anywhere you want to go.”
- Five High-Performing Habits of High-Performing Public Agency Boards
- Five High-Performing Habits of High-Performing Non-Profit Boards
Subscribe to the LRI Newsletter to receive The Evolution of Boards of Directors PDF, which lays out the three stages of Board evolution.