Buidling More Effective and Impactful Boards

By Jim Thompson, CAE, IOM

In a recent BoardSource Non Profit Governance Index (CLICK HERE), CEOs and Board Members were asked to grade their Board performance. The results were very telling.

Several areas rated C or below and in many cases the board and the CEO agreed on those ratings. Some areas of agreement were: increasing diversity, community outreach, recruiting new board members, strategic planning/thinking, monitoring performance, and understanding their role.

While there was agreement, there was also disagreement. There were about four areas where the CEO rated a C and the Board gave itself a B (We always think better of ourselves, don’t we?).
The areas where they differed were: evaluating the Chief Executive, knowledge of organization’s programs, commitment and involvement, and guidance of the chief executive.

For the moment, I am just going to focus on the areas of disagreement.

One of these feeds the other. The reason many boards are not familiar with the organization’s programs is because of their level of commitment and involvement. And many studies, including the Governance Index, say that an informed and engaged board leads to a board that is effective and has impact.

So, how do you inform them and engage them?
It first starts with orientation. In the BoardSource study, it said that 90% of boards that have an orientation were rated as somewhat effective to very effective. Boards that did not have an orientation came in at 67%.

The relationship between the CEO and Board is supposed to be a partnership. And for a partnership to be successful each side needs to understand its role and also have clear definitions of what success is and how we measure that success. Perhaps this is the reason for the differences between CEOs and Boards in the area of evaluation and guidance.

One of the ways we improve this is for each group to have a job description and to have yearly evaluations based on goals created and agreed on by both parties.
Evaluations are not the most fun experience to go through and it was apparent by the survey that showed over 30% of CEOs had either never had an evaluation or it had been over a year. On the flip side, and one thing the BoardSource study didn’t address, is the evaluation of the board. All sides should have an annual evaluation. Its important for each side to know what went well, what didn’t and why and how to fix the problem?

In addition, take a look at this summary (CLICK HERE) by AENC member Jim Booth, on the Carver Governance Model. This is a great tool to more effective boards.

In a recent AENC Association Executive Roundtable we talked about the overall issues of board governance and there were several positive things that organizations are doing to make our boards more effective and engaged and there is more work ahead.

One success area was attributed to creating an operational plan that tied into the strategic plan. This idea was echoed as a way to get the committees more engaged in the process. Now they know what needs to be done because the board created a road map. And as your planning that road map, make sure you involve everyone in the planning process, especially staff. This helps really show the board all that goes on within the organization, an area where CEO’s ranked really low and the Board ranked higher. If staff is in the conversation, it makes it much easier to see why sometimes simply adding another program doesn’t make sense unless your willing quit doing something else.

Board member recruitment was one area both CEO and Board agreed. It was also an area of concern at our Roundtable. Boards are struggling to diversify and look more their existing members and also like their market potential.

Diversity we discovered wasn’t just about race or gender. There is also a big move to getting more young people involved. And even the definition of youth itself can be debated. There are young people in age and young people in terms of career. Some organizations are creating leadership academies or teams. Some are even given a seat at the board table as either ad-hoc members or in some cases an at-large position at the table.

The challenge for an association when it thinks about diversity is to go into it with a plan. In other words, don’t just recruit a young person for the sake of saying you have a young person, figure out why you want a young person and make sure you recruit the right young people that can help make it happen.
The Roundtable brought out several other issues.

  1. Trying to figure out how to communicate more effectively with the board
  2. How to get the board to be more innovative
  3. Strategy vs. Operational – the fine balance between the two
  4. Managing the growth of an organization
  5. The feeling we’ve lost that one-on-one approach
  6. Anxiety within the industry
  7. Disconnect between what the members see as important and board sees as important
  8. Getting boards to be more proactive than reactive

On the first issue, as we discussed earlier, part of the challenge of communicating to the board is what do you tell them? A well-craft strategic plan, with the accompanying operational plan, provides great conversation items that you can include in a regular email to the executive committee/board. Also, figure out unique ways to deliver information and engage them in the process. One way to tackle this and it brings back that one-on-one, have meetings with folks and go over the successes. Tell your story.

When it comes to having more innovative boards, this is where the diversity comes into play. If you want to continue going on the same path, keep doing things like they’ve always been done. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “We must become the change we want to see.”

The conflict between being strategic and being operational will always be present in board governance. There are times the CEO needs a board member for their brains and there are times when they are needed for their brawn. Again, going back to the orientation, as long as the board member understands that role and is evaluated regularly, we can mitigate some of that. As was suggested in the Roundtable a “Bored” board member will micro-manage. These folks are your 20%. They are the best and the brightest, so you better have something for them to do or they will find something to do. And worse yet, if you are trying to recruit younger members or those who are busy, nothing will be more of a turn-off than to be on a board that is a wastes their precious time.

When it comes to managing growth and getting boards to be proactive not reactive, you must make a serious commitment to strategic planning and getting more voices heard. Its not enough to know the needs of your board, you need to know member needs, potential member needs and even the needs of the general public. This will also help with the feeling of disconnect between members and the board of directors.

Here’s to helping your organization become more effective and create impact!