A colleague recently told me that board meetings at the nonprofit where she serves are a tremendous waste of time because they lack a focused agenda and purpose. Several board members, she said, “haven’t attended in many months and there isn’t a strong connection to what the organization is engaged in.” A board member of a prominent organization told me board meetings are for decision-making, and in order for the board to make decisions it needs to review reports from staff. Making decisions is not the board’s primary responsibility—it is, quite frankly, to plan and engage in dialogue that sets the conditions for decisions.
Governing successfully requires a board to treat their meetings as more than a “kaffeklatsch”. It requires that a board act with intention to ensure the organization is healthy and having an impact. Boards typically govern solely from the focused and critically important perspective of fiduciary. This means boards often review reports and prior decisions and ask detailed questions about what happened in the past. They get caught up in making judgments about past actions and decisions rather than assessing where they are now and looking forward. The fiduciary role is one that boards need to fulfill at a fundamental level, and there are many that fail at this role! A board that only sits in the board room and listens to reports isn’t governing.
Governing, if done well, requires boards to assess the current environment in which the organization is operating and discern the trends taking place and anticipate where environmental shifts may impact the organization and how they may need to adapt. Governing requires boards to look up and not be distracted by operational trivia, partly because members are ill prepared for meetings and agendas are incoherent and allow for rambling and opinionating on matters unrelated to the organization’s needs.
Board meetings should allow time for generative dialogue on issues that can provide some strategic direction to the organization. There should be more questions than conclusions, more gray than black and white. Being in a generative space requires board members to be alert and open and willing to suspend the need to reach a conclusion, but to seek understanding and to discern potential risks that may face the organization.
To that end, these are just some of the essential questions boards need to ask during their meetings to gain a broader perspective of the work and the environment.
- Are we advancing our mission?
- Are we still relevant?
- Are we on course with our strategic plan?
- Have we prepared for the future we desire to create?
- Who will lead us into that future?
- Are we as a board effective in partnering with the CEO and providing the leadership expected of us?
- Are we providing the support to the CEO that she/he needs to be effective in leading this organization?
- Are we doing enough to enhance the organization’s standing in the community?
- Are we providing the appropriate oversight to ensure that programs are advancing the mission?
- Are we focusing our attention and time on the issues that matter?
The dialogue outlined here allows boards and executives to learn, and provides a space for the board to serve in an advisory capacity for executives. It also takes time and effort to be in a generative space, and perhaps a good practice is for board members to continually ask whether they are focused on the right things and whether they are focused on governance or management issues. The board that structures its conversations on these questions engages in foresight and looks to the future to help shape strategy. That’s real leadership.