A Recipe for Creating Strategic Boards

In addition to oversight, boards need to provide insight, and if possible, foresight.

Nancy Axelrod, Governing for Growth, Using 7 Measures of Success to Strengthen Board Dialogue and Decision Making

I second Nancy Axelrod’s observation and propose another: Unless boards balance their efforts in oversight, insight and foresight, they will fail at being strategic.

In her new book published by ASAE and the Center for Association Leadership, she offers many pragmatic explanations for why boards fall into behaviors that are not strategic and proposes many good questions and practices to get back on track. As a companion guide for 7 Measures of Success for boards, this book helps both volunteer and staff leaders clarify their partnership in creating remarkable organizations.

I want to build on the sound recommendations on this book and make the case for rebalancing the time boards spend on oversight, insight and foresight.

There was a time when people would lament that board members just don’t get their fiduciary responsibility. That problem ended with a number of high profile board failures, Sarbanes-Oxley, and a cultural shift to greater accountability. Today board members are so anxious about getting oversight right that they do risk straying into administrivia.

If boards do as Axelrod recommends in this book and organize their agendas around their strategic goals and issues, they are much more likely to spend their time engaged in strategic thinking. It’s through these strategic conversations that boards develop insight. Thinking together, they get underneath a situation’s facts and discover why the issues or opportunities matter to the organization’s achievements and culture. With insight, not only do boards make better decisions, any changes will be easier to implement because they are aligned with the organization’s values and culture.

Where too many boards fall short is in devoting time to foresight. This is not surprising, because present priorities make urgent demands on board meeting time. Unless boards and CEOS devote time to monitoring and discussing emerging trends and issues, they definitely will miss opportunities and could risk detecting a real game changer that leaves the organization out of step with their vision and value promise.

Maybe it’s time boards follow a recipe for board agendas that looks more like this:

  • 1/3 oversight, including the consent agenda, financial reports, and progress on the strategic plan and strategies
  • 1/3 insight, including new strategic issues and opportunities such as decisions on new or revised programs and services and public policy positions
  • 1/3 foresight, including identifying and discussing emerging trends and issues and their implications for your industry, profession or cause and for your organization’s strategic direction

This recipe should yield a strategic board that is more capable of diligent stewardship, sound decision making, and forward-thinking leadership.

Active Listening Is a High Energy Process

After a major facilitation I am always quite exhausted from the energy it takes to be in the moment, connected with the participants, and anticipating what needs to happen next. Yesterday I discovered where much of that energy really goes—into active listening.

I attended an intimate one-day executive communications workshop as the participant. At the end of the day I was almost as drained as I would be if I had been the leader and facilitator. Moment of insight: the real heavy lifting of learning and relationship building is not in what you say. It is in what you truly hear and understand.

In active listening, we have quite a lot of attention and mental processing happening. Active listening requires a response. We are trying out new ideas, thinking about our own experiences with familiar concepts, and considering perspectives others might have. At a minimum we might be taking notes to help retain key ideas. Quite often we have to demonstrate our understanding through what we say next or by performing some activity that tests our comprehension.

The brain is definitely not idling. It is making sense of the experience, managing the emotional dimension of the experience, and creating neural pathways for these memories.

So the next time I lead a workshop, I hope I absolutely wear my participants out. Not because I tried to cram in a lot of knowledge and learning activities. But because I did everything I could do as a leader and facilitator to maximize the mutual experience of active listening.