Building high-performance boards
Wednesday, March 16, 2016
Have you ever considered why some boards (or senior management teams) are more effective than others? The usual reasons may include individual skills and knowledge, attitude, strong staff support, infrastructure, etc.
However, one of the most powerful drivers of board performance — and also one of the most overlooked — is the onboarding process.
Consider: How is it possible to get exceptional performance when a new board member shows up at the first meeting after having — at best — a short conversation with the chair and a quick review of the meeting's agenda and materials? While an orientation meeting is better than nothing, the board member still will not hit the ground running.
If a high-performance board is what is required, then so is an investment in time to make sure that this happens. Consider the following onboarding process:
- Build personal relationships first. People work best when they have a personal, collegial relationship. Not that a one-time social event will make this happen, but one must start somewhere. The work of the board means there will always be disagreements, so building personal trust means tough discussions can happen respectfully.
- Build on the history. New board members need to understand what has happened before: the history, issues, decisions. They need an understanding of their responsibilities — and others'. Without this knowledge, it is impossible to build on the good work of past boards. Without this knowledge, everything must be discovered and redone anew. Knowledge transfer ideas include a new board member briefing book, a board orientation presentation, "job shadowing" with outgoing board members and committee leadership prior to joining the board.
- Build a common team vision. While most organizations already have a mission, vision and values, how a particular board executes this vision will always be different. The pressure of the first few meetings — where decisions need to be made — is not the time to synchronize. Even worse, when there is no common vision, competing visions rush to fill the void. Spending time on the vision means it can be incorporated by each board member as they contribute.
- Set tactical priorities. While a common vision sets the direction, agreeing on tactical priorities beforehand means a far more effective decision-making process throughout the board's term. No longer would each issue be debated in isolation — the agreement on priorities can help govern the conversation. (Of course, the board might change these priorities along the way, but that is a different decision.)
- Agree on ground rules. These include both formal rules, as well as the social contract between board members. Examples of ground rules include board materials being sent a week before the meeting, always coming prepared, always starting on time, the level of formality of the meeting, etc. If the ground rules aren't defined and agreed to, each person will make his/her own ground rules, leading to unproductive friction, frustration and disappointment.
- Build mutual support. No individual board member has it all. In fact, it is the diversity of perspective that provides fertile ground for great decisions. A supportive atmosphere where there is a willingness to step in when needed — or in times of crisis — can both help get things done and avoid individual burnout. A board that works together gets things done. (And has fun.)
- Build beyond the board. A high-performance board engages the next tier of individuals through committee work and engages wider audiences through communication, events, social media and more. This engagement is a key intelligence-gathering channel for the board. More critically, focusing on succession is the only way to build a sustainable organization in the future.
When should all of this work happen? Clearly it takes time, so if the goal is to have a high-performance board right from the get-go, the real work must begin 2-3 months before the mandate even starts.
This week's action plan: This list is just as applicable to any team: a management group, a workplace taskforce or a volunteer committee. This week, consider the next group you will be leading: Have you thought through each of these points? And if you are an individual joining a new group and the leader doesn't have a formal onboarding process, what can you do to walk yourself through each step? Your success — and the organization's — is determined as much before you start than on day one.
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