Making sure your board becomes and stays strategy-oriented is a topic on which many people have ideas – and challenges too. I know that because this post is crowd-sourced to a great extent from the members of the Trillium Chapter of the Canadian Society of Association Executives who were eager to talk about it. Last week I facilitated a Table Talk professional development session in which a new set of participants came every half-hour to talk about a particular topic. The participants shared the issues they’ve faced, and the ideas they’ve used to address them (successfully, or not).
Here’s a distillation of both what I had come into the session prepared to talk about, and of the great ideas that everyone else (literally) brought to the table.
Why does it matter?
Why does it matter for your board to be paying attention to strategy? First, because it’s their job. Someone has to be thinking long-term in the organization, and the board’s duty of organizational stewardship means they have to set a strategy that will enable the organization to fulfil its mission. In all the briefing we give to board members when they start – conflict of interest guidelines, rules of order, the list of values, the expense claim form – make sure they clearly understand that role. If not them, then who?
Sometimes a board that’s too muddled into operations is looking for a role to play. Helping them play their strategic role may give them the right things to focus on.
Why it’s hard
Being strategy-oriented is legitimately difficult. Some boards need to make a big transition from the old ways to get there. They’re used to spending meetings listening to detailed reporting and operational discussions at the meetings. They spend time talking about the minutiae of programs because that’s what they are familiar with as members or volunteers.
Strategy, on the other hand, is harder. It’s ambiguous. It’s unrelated to their membership experience in the association, and it’s usually not their day job. It involves creating the future and acknowledging both what they know and what they don’t.
It’s cognitively and emotionally challenging, and it’s easy to understand why boards resist the change and later tend to backslide into less-strategic discussions. Having a strategic orientation doesn’t mean you develop a 2×2 matrix to decide on lunch; but it does take more ownership. It’s active, not passive. You can’t phone it in.
How can we support it?
So, how can we make things easier for a board to get – and stay – strategy-oriented?
First, give them something to aim for
Set out a vision of the strategy-oriented board. Continue to share why it matters, what you are striving for and why. What does a vision/strategy-oriented board look and feel like?
- People have table-thumping certainty about the truly important things for your organization. Values are lived, not just a list nobody thinks about. The vision and mission are well-understood and often referenced; they live in the conversations the board has and the choices it makes.
- The board can successfully engage in deep conversations. Members are willing to raise tough issues, maybe reframing questions entirely. This is not always comfortable – it may challenge accepted wisdom, or threaten the status quo (which for staff may mean their jobs).
- At the same time, the board is able to see long-term repercussions of minor decisions – and make them anyway. It’s not stymied. It gets operational where it needs to.
- It may demand more robust answers to harder questions. Not the details – but where is this sector/industry really going and how can we know? You will likely have to rethink regular reporting, but you may also get to develop research projects to take on the most critical issues in your sector.
- Meetings feel useful. Agendas make sense, roles are clear, time is devoted to the right things.
OK, so how do we get there?
A few possibilities, which in many cases can be moved forward in parallel.
Develop the people you’ve got
This is where training and coaching come in, working with the existing board to help them reach for best practices. Support and coaching for the chair is crucial here, as chairs come in with their own skill sets and experiences, and some will need help to provide real leadership to their fellow board members.
This requires you to understand the motivation of these board members, and work with that to find the tools they will latch onto most readily.
Remember too that training doesn’t have to be annual, just at the time of board orientation. Consider building time for board development into each board meeting.
Maybe, you need different people
You may need to change who’s sitting around the table. This could require a full governance review to develop different criteria entirely for board members. And/or it may require more focus on recruitment practices. Consider a competency matrix to determine what capabilities you want among your board members, and then think about what’s the obstacle to having those capabilities. Think about whether you need all the ex officio or representative members you’ve got on your board or whether there are other ways to get those perspectives into the room.
Use design to support behaviour
These tactics have the advantage of not always requiring wholesale board buy-in to a transformation, but some of them can be deceptively useful.
- Agenda design
- Make sure big issues get the time they need on the agenda – a consent agenda is one effective way to free up board meeting time.
- Sequence agenda items logically
- Design the discussions so that difficult items are discussed at high-energy times (not right before lunch)
- Tie agenda items to the strategic plan; if you can’t do that, is it important enough to come to the board?
- Meeting arrangements
- Do you have the right number of meetings? Are they so frequent that they slip into operational issues because that’s all there is to talk about? Are they so rare that the board isn’t familiar with the organization’s business?
- Is your physical location really conducive to discussion? Is there adequate space for a group that size?
- Can you try something like GoToMeeting to reduce costs of in-person meetings?
- Should you consider whether the meetings are off-site? On-site? What will help the board focus the way you want them to?
- Board packages
- Be clear on what is the core part of the package, and what is additional for a deep dive
- Focus their attention on the key elements of documents that have strategic implications (but still provide the back up for reference).
- Board workplans; show them their year’s work mapped out, and use that to plan for major discussions
- Physical reminders of the core elements of your work:
- Consider putting the vision, mission, values, strategies on a tent card facing each board member, or on a laminated placemat.
- Some associations paint the vision/mission/values/strategies on their boardroom walls…
- Could also use these to remind the board of their roles and duties.
- Meeting practices to consider:
- Liberal use of a parking lot to keep discussions on-topic.
- Setting aside a half-hour for an open strategic discussion at every meeting.
- Board evaluations of each meeting – and using the results.
- Don’t have a separate Chief Staff Officer report at all; the entire package and agenda constitutes their report.
- Provide analysis (not just information) to support decision-making:
- Use graphs and charts to help visual learners see issues.
- Don’t just report on the past – project out to the future.
- A 2×2 matrix of efficiency x value can help the board identify projects to support as well as projects that may not fit with their current requirements.
A strategy-oriented board helps the alignment between:
- The purpose of the board,
- The responsibility they feel,
- The discussions they have,
- The decisions they make, and
- The information they’re equipped with to make decisions
Helping a board take its strategic responsibilities seriously, and to enact the habits and practices to fulfil them faithfully, is hard – but rewarding – work. Where is your board? What changes would you like to make? What challenges do you face?
If you’d like to talk about any of these issues, please get in touch.
Photo from Death to Stock, used by permission.