Recently, someone asked me, “What is the Number 1 question you get asked at BoardSource?” That was easy to answer: “What is the ideal number of board members we should have for an effective board?”
I am always a little bit depressed by this question, suggesting as it does a kind of formulaic perspective on governance. It’s an example of what I call the “fast-food” approach — simple and easy but not likely to be good news in the long term. For the record, an in-depth analysis of our Governance Index 2010 data revealed that there is no optimal “one-size-fits-all” for the number of members serving on a board. In other words, small or large boards can be just as effective as medium-sized boards, especially when you take into consideration the use of best practices such as engaging in a formal board evaluation process or offering structured orientations, both of which had a positive relationship to board performance.
So, if it’s not about size, what IS it that makes boards effective, and even exceptional? Effective boards bring a wide range of backgrounds and experiences to the table, are familiar with their role and what is expected from them, and bring an understanding of how they should be doing their board work. Having 5 or 15 individuals around the board table won’t make any difference if they don’t really “get” the work of the organization, don’t have a good leader in the chair, and either try to micro-manage or, just as bad, don’t ask any questions.
Ultimately it is how the board functions that determines its effectiveness. How engaged and supportive of the work are they? Does everyone have a clear sense of purpose? Does the chair have a strong partnership with the chief executive? Do the people around the table represent a mix of cultures, ages, and backgrounds? Do they together possess the right range of skills to lead the organization?
How important are the human dynamics around the table? Critical. Are board members respectful of staff and each other, passionate about the work, eager to share their experiences and views and to listen to others? Do they understand each other? Are they eager to learn, tolerant of differences, and absolutely committed to making things happen?
I could go on…..but these are the questions I would love to be asked about. And here’s one for you: What makes YOUR board effective?
Editor’s note: Watch for the release of BoardSource’s upcoming white paper on board size.