Establish Board Boundaries: How to Move from an Operational to a Governance Board in Five “Easy” Steps

Establish Board Boundaries: How to Move from an Operational to a Governance Board in Five “Easy” Steps

One of my early professional jobs involved making hospital visits. One week at a new hospital, I rode the elevator up to the second floor to visit a patient. After our meeting, I took the elevator to return to my car.

Common experience right? Except that as I exited the elevator, I realized I was seeing the exact same bulletin board across the hallway I’d seen moments before.

Even though I thought I’d gone somewhere, I’d taken two rides to nowhere.

Moving from an operations to a governance board can be like riding to nowhere. You gain agreement from your board to focus on strategy and governance issues. You think you’re getting somewhere. But later in the same meeting, the board circles back to giving unsolicited advice on running programs, hiring staff, and the like.

Governance boards establish policies, select the CEO, and provide high-level fiduciary oversight. “They do not run programs,” shares Vicki Pugh, Vice President for Development at Palm Beach Atlantic University, “reorganize the development office, micromanage events, suggest design concepts for brochures, and except for the CEO, make hiring decisions.”

How Do We Get Our Boards to the Governance Promised Land?

  1. Assign Accountability. Okay, presuming you already shared board, CEO, and staff responsibilities with your board, establish governing accountability inside the board. Lots of options exist. Your chair can begin the meeting by asking a different member each meeting to keep a running tally of the time spent on governance vs. management issues.
  2. Check the Agenda. Boards want to give the help you need. Make sure you give them meat to chew, that is policy and strategy issues, not management concerns.
  3. Remind. When we change behaviors prompts help. Build reminders into your meetings. You might, for example, give everyone a red card to indicate “stop.” Invite members to pull out their card when the discussion meanders into operations.
  4. Be Brief. Insist on short meetings. Strategy is hard work. Long sessions lead to tired people. Tired people get cranky. Cranky people dig into details, make poor decisions, and offend others. Don’t believe me? Notice when your meetings go negative. Note the time elapsed. Nine-out-of-ten times you’ve passed the hour mark.
  5. Evaluate. Before you close meetings, ask the board to evaluate the process used. Rotate tactics. At meeting one ask open-ended questions. At meeting two request anonymous answers written on an index card. Next time, handout a quick survey with a Likert-type scale, etc. Ask three or fewer questions. Always include a variation on this one: What percent of the meeting did we spend on governance versus operations?

You can ride the elevator to the promised land. Push buttons to assign accountability, remind others of the destination, and evaluate progress. And, as with elevator rides, be brief.

Your challenge today: Pick one of the board boundary behaviors above. Apply it at your next board meeting. Let me know how it goes.

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