Board meetings tend to remind me of sitcoms: a genre of comedy centered on characters who share a common environment, such as a home, workplace, or a boardroom, with laughable moments. There is usually a board member who lacks self-awareness (i.e. Kramer from Seinfeld), someone who has a very high level of self-orientation (i.e. Barney from How I Met Your Mother) or an individual who seems clueless most of the meeting but can surprise you with a flash of insight in the right moment (i.e. Phoebe from Friends or Woody from Cheers.)
The diversity of social-emotional and intellectual capacity present at board meetings makes it ever more important for boards to manage their time in an optimal way that enables the organization to determine the best way forward to mission fulfillment. According to the seminal work by Chait, Ryan and Taylor, Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of the Nonprofit Boards, there are three governance modes: fiduciary governance, strategic governance, and generative governance. If you think about these three modes as rungs on a ladder that reaches to greater heights of critical thinking, then fiduciary is foundational, strategic is intermediate, and generative is advanced.
BoardSource’s Ten Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards details the board’s scope of work. Each responsibility is impacted by one of these modes of governance, though the most impactful boards understand and utilize generative governance to anticipate what’s around the corner for their organizations. Generative governance creates the conditions for boards to invent the future in some respects.
It may be easier to see how each mode can be addressed with a question:
Fiduciary: Problems are meant to be spotted and beg the question: What’s wrong?
Strategic: Problems are meant to be solved and beg the question: What’s the plan?
Generative: Problems are meant to be framed and beg the question: What’s the key question?
The way the problem is framed can change the answer. Another way to think about these three modes is that the board’s role is distinct in each. When wearing their fiduciary hat, boards are watchdogs focused on compliance. In the strategic mode, boards are strategists setting goals and mobilizing resources toward execution. The generative mode, in my estimation, is the most creative in that it asks board members to be sense makers, interrogating their current reality in anticipation of future challenges facing the organization.
How does a board begin to govern in generative mode? You probably guessed that the board chair has a role to play in setting the stage. The board chair can champion the need to elevate performance by embracing a new way of thinking. (For greater insights on board culture, read Leadership of the Board Chair in Creating Board Culture.) Modeling the desired behavior by being intentional about agenda setting is one step. The agenda is essentially the playbook for each meeting, and it shouldn’t be filled with only compliance issues. According to Frank Martinelli from the Center for Public Skills Training, a forward-looking agenda recognizes that “today’s problems are a result of yesterday’s solutions.” When a board commits to generative governance, it gets one step closer to solving future challenges. Additionally, the governance committee plays a lead role in ensuring that learning opportunities are available to board members as the board transitions to developing this level of inquiry. Generative governance is a learned behavior that requires practice and intention.
What are the benefits of elevating board discourse to a generative level? Let’s transition from sitcoms to movies. Traditional board meetings can sometimes feel like Groundhog Day, with rote reporting from staff on past events. The emphasis is misplaced on transmitting information and reports rather than envisioning potential responses to future challenges. By contrast, board meetings that leverage generative governance emphasize participation and action. Board members are prepared, engaged in discussions and deliberations, and ready to dive into sense making. Meetings are not an activity, but rather an accomplishment that drives toward outcomes for the organization. The investment in generative governance creates more opportunities for innovation. Since there isn’t a reliance on simplistic yes or no answers, it’s incumbent upon board members to delve to deeper depths in their questioning.
For a riveting read on this topic and how to increase your board’s performance with critical thinking, I suggest The Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership: Building High-Performing Nonprofit Boards by Cathy A. Trower (Jossey-Bass, 2013). This publication offers case examples, recommendations, and a research framework that articulates the many benefits of embracing generative governance and tangible steps to infuse more meaning into board meetings. A board chair profiled in this book defined generative governances as a
“temporary suspension of all the things we think we know about how we are supposed to think and problem solve...to enter the discussion at an earlier phase and have more philosophical, broader conversations before we discuss a course of action or push for a decision. It’s a more creative process that is not solution oriented, and having a freer conversation with no expectation other than having that great discussion…not seeking to identify how to get from point A to point B, but instead stopping to just think and ponder.”
It’s worth noting that Trower cautions boards not to overuse any one mode, but to “be a three-type board, not a typecast board.” Each mode has value, just like every sitcom needs a Phoebe.
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