In my community, the public schools dismissed their students for the summer last week, which means that some parents are spending this week contemplating what to do about Junior’s report card. He’s a smart kid and full of promise, so why is he getting B-minuses? And what can be done to help him improve his grades?
Nonprofit board members should be asking themselves the same questions. According to Leading with Intent: A National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices 2015, nonprofit boards across the country also are earning B-minuses for their performance. Why is this when board members are smart people, just like Junior? Shouldn’t we too expect more of ourselves? I have some thoughts about this, but for now, some tips to help underachieving boards improve their grade.
Light a fire under your governance committee. Maybe it’s inactive and needs a more enthusiastic chair. Maybe you need to repurpose your nominating committee to focus year-round on the board’s engagement. Having this standing committee become more active will force the right conversations about roles and responsibilities, composition, orientation, effectiveness, and the right leadership. One colleague of mine even recommends making your corporate secretary the chief governance officer of the organization and asking him or her to chair this committee.
Repurpose your board meeting agendas so that there is less passive listening to oral reports and more meaningful dialogue on the most important issues. Call it generative work or strategic thinking, when board members are in the same room, the best use of their time is interactive discussion. This is more than just asking questions for clarification; it is when the dialogue generates better understanding among board members and new ideas that will advance mission and strategy. To free up more space for this interactive communication, consider delegating more oversight functions to committees, using consent agenda more aggressively, requiring written reports from your CEO and committees be sent out in advance, preparing visual dashboards for mission impact measures, or even holding a conference call in advance of a board meeting to review fiduciary matters — all so the in-person time can be spent better in interchange.
Close the feedback loop. Board member performance needs to be assessed at all levels, and then the aggregate data reported back to directors. How can a team improve if it doesn’t know how it’s doing? Assessment can be as simple as a 3X5-inch card used at the end of a board meeting for directors to share with the chair what they most liked or disliked about the meeting. Or a board can complete (as BoardSource recommends) a full self-assessment every two to three years and benchmark against its own performance over time. Even peer-to-peer assessments are starting to be used by some exceptional boards. And BoardSource has assessment tools to help with all of the above!
Be positive. Do you truly believe in the potential value-added to mission of an exceptional board? Do you truly believe in the benefits of a constructive partnership between your board and CEO? Maybe all of a board’s successes start with the right attitude, the right values of trust, respect, and interdependence between a board and its CEO. In Forces for Good, the authors state that “most of the (CEOs) we interviewed maintained that their relationship with the board was critical.” Recently some colleagues and I were deliberating about what characteristic most determines how good a board really is. The first answer was a board-centric CEO, one that truly appreciated all the value-added and benefits that a great board can bring to a mission. The second answer was board leaders who realize the importance of doing its job well in support of the mission, its constituents, and its CEO.
All of these considerations emphasize being more intentional about what it means to be an exceptional board and about implementing practices that will improve your board’s performance. There’s a lesson to be learned from those parents intent on helping their children succeed in school. They understand that our children are tomorrow’s leaders. But let’s not forget today. Nonprofit board members are today’s leaders. I encourage us to set equally high expectations of ourselves. Let’s live up to our own promise.