320px-Swiss_Army_Knife_Wenger_Opened_20050627What do you do when your board doesn’t have the skill set to be strategic?

This question came up at a presentation I made recently – it’s a common problem, and a good question.

I’ve argued that more strategic thinking is increasingly important for associations, to help them focus, and drive value. For some organizations, operating perhaps in a changing environment, or with tricky strategic questions being posed, taking a tinkering, business-as-usual approach isn’t going to be enough.

But what if you don’t have solid strategic decision-making skill sets around the leadership table? What do you do then?

It’s true you do need some capabilities. Without a solid strategic thinker at the top of the organization, it’s hard to see how you’re going to get terrifically far in terms of making and implementing strategic decisions. Sometimes the organization needs someone able to see the big picture and sit atop a changing organization in a changing environment. That’s quite a different skill set from more of a caretaker or even a nurturing leadership style.

But do you need everyone in leadership to be a great strategic thinker to move forward with a really strategic approach? The short answer is no. It’s not absolutely critical to have exceptional strategic capabilities broadly scattered within the organization. It’s helpful, of course, to have strategic thinking on the board, and among the staff, but it only takes a few to get critical mass.

But the key is in setting the strategy in the first place, and that rests with the board. How can you help the board be more strategic in its decision-making, even if they don’t come in with these skills?

  1. Set the agenda and the workplan. If you signal that strategic decisions are coming, people have time to prepare. If you put big issues – eg finally getting the report for that big task force in time to feed into either budgeting or strategic planning – on the agenda, that is a big signal. The board is guided by the agenda – if lots of time is devoted to detail and operational questions, they are going to assume that’s their priority too.
  2. Influence board selection. If the board members are elected, there are still ways to communicate the call for nominations and the election itself to signal the strategic nature of the decisions. For instance, you could use examples of past strategic board decisions to show the kinds of decisions the board makes. And if you select your board, that gives you more ability to prioritize strategic thinking in the criteria.
  3. Design board orientation, an unparalleled opportunity to really help board members get up to speed on the decision-making culture. It can very much set the stage for their board experience.
  4. Work on creating a culture of empiricism. Develop metrics and a dashboard of regular reporting that correspond to your strategic plan, so the board regularly sees the connection between strategy, implementation, and results.
  5. Bring them along on the journey. Consider what information or reports will be useful for the board to have in order to make the strategic decisions they have ahead of them.
  6. If you have the luxury, take advantage of changes in the makeup and leadership of the board to make big strategic decisions when you have the more strategic thinkers in key positions.
  7. Be patient and open-minded. Remember that people’s skills develop and grow. Unless your board is made up of entrepreneurs and business founders, often a board position is the first time people have had the buck stop with them in the sense that they are accountable for the organization. They may surprise you with their capabilities to seize the leadership opportunities made available to them, but these may need some time to emerge.

I don’t believe that strategic thinking is unlearnable. As with many things, people respond to their environment, their information, and their peers. And there’s room for all sorts of thinkers in a board environment – the detail-oriented report-scourers, the people-focused emotional tone-setters, the big-picture dreamers, and everyone else. With preparation and a well-designed process, it’s possible to create the conditions for a fruitful strategic conversation and a board that is able to confront the realities of the organization to make good decisions on its behalf.

If you’d like to discuss how we can help with your own strategic decision-making processes, please get in touch.