The Case of the Restless Board


I’m working with a Board of Directors that is proving most challenging! This particular Board is a chamber of commerce composed of business owners. Every meeting is a marvel of micro-management. Should our web site have a blue banner or green? Which vendor should we use to host our annual meeting? Tactical decisions like these, which should be left to staff to decide, become all-consuming conversations for this Board.

The root problem is a lack of trust between the Board and executive director. I’ve tried to create systems to build trust. I facilitated the development of a clear and comprehensive business plan. We have developed a performance scorecard. I have talked to the Board about the importance of letting things play out, to see whether the executive director and his staff are up to the task. But no sooner do I make this speech, when I turn around and witness a Board member who wants to talk about the choice of vendors at a cocktail reception!

Boards that truly want to make a difference, that want to generate lasting, sustained success in their organizations, need to stay focused on the things that Boards should do: clarifying and communicating the strategic focus of the organization. This will build trust and enable the executive director and staff to act nimbly and effectively in the face of constant change.

But members of this Board seem only interested in what’s in it for them, today. Part of it stems from the unique way that the organization is funded and structured. Each Board member represents a specific constituency that pays into a central fund that supports the organization. Board members are intrinsically motivated to make sure they get their “fair” share of the kitty.

What I’ve come to realize is that I haven’t done enough to build a collective sense of stewardship on this Board. They still see their job as steering the ship, rather than setting the course. We need to spend more time on long-range vision and specific measures of success tied to that vision.

People often ask me which of the practices described in my new book “The Leadership Equation” is the most important. All ten are important. But I would say that aligning people around a clear strategic focus is the most important. It is the framework and the vehicle that enables a Board like this one to build trust and start moving at light speed.

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