Building Board Strength
Nina Kern, Organization Development Consultant, JBS, Inc.
With more attention than ever on Boards of Directors these days, having
a strong Board is critical -- whether you run a business or a
non-profit. Here are some things you can do.
Everything that happens on your Board
happens in the context of relationships. For example, the CEO and Board
Chair must build a good relationship. People need to see that
relationship in action. This builds confidence and credibility at other
levels of relationship building, on the Board and among staff.
People need to get to know each other, and see each other as
individuals. One way to accomplish this is to learn about the passions
that bring people to your organization and inspire their commitment.
Knowing the strengths of each participant and what will hold, and
leverage, their interest helps build a team, and can make the
difference between a "rubber-stamp" Board and a proactive Board.
Remember that relationships change
The very nature of Boards
is that people go on and off them. Relationships are changing all the
time. The Board and CEO together are in charge of Board re-training,
re-team-building, re-strategizing, even re-hearing one another’s
passion about why they are there and what they hope to accomplish. Even
when this is done well, relationships dissipate if these activities
aren’t sustained. In time, the players change, the environment changes
(sometimes dramatically), agendas shift, new competitors emerge.
Suddenly, or so it seems, what was an energetic Board has transformed
into one that’s sluggish and off the mark. The bottom line:
relationship building must be ongoing. It must be daily and deliberate.
It must be embedded in the CEO’s consciousness as mission-critical and
evident in every action s/he takes.
Board Chairs change every year or two. It
typically falls to the CEO and remaining Board members to assist and
support each new Chair as s/he becomes informed and assumes leadership.
Likewise, when new Board members come on, they require opportunities to
learn about the organization and their role. These are natural
transitions, but that doesn’t make them easy or comfortable. To manage
through transitional times, look for and affirm the leadership
capability of Board members who may not hold “leadership positions”
yet, due to their strengths, passion, and energy can bring forward
fresh approaches and ideas to help move your organization forward.
How work gets done is as important as what
work gets done. Successful Boards make a point to study and improve
their processes. Everything – from how agendas are crafted, motions are
introduced, and action plans implemented to how well meeting
discussions are facilitated, how clearly meeting minutes are written,
and how quickly they are sent out – depends on process. While the chair
may lead it’s everyone’s job to move the process along.
Set out clear roles
People join boards to do something.
Often, people don’t know what to “sign up for.” They end up being
recruited to do something they don’t like or aren’t good at. So a word
of caution: if the person you want on your Board is politically
well-connected and that’s why you want him or her, or if all you really
want is for that Board member to write a check worthy of a “photo opp,”
be resourceful. Find ways Board members can feel good about what they
bring. Just don’t ask them to do things they can’t or don’t want to:
you will lose them.
Think – and act – with the whole in mind
The organization is
an organic system where actions cascade, sometimes in directions you
don’t anticipate. Even in small settings, “stovepipes” pop up: it’s
easy to forget everything is inter-connected, and easier still to
ignore where repercussions of today’s decisions can show up tomorrow in
Remember to step back and ask “What might be some unintended
consequences?” “Do we have the input we need from everyone concerned?”
“Have we communicated with everyone who should know what we’re doing?”
These are impact questions that go to stakeholder, context, and timing
considerations. And these are often press release opportunities that go
Engage in conversation
At the end of the day, it’s all about
the conversations we have – many of which are not easy or simple: Board
members may have to talk with the CEO about a performance problem, or
meet with prospective givers, stakeholders, the press, and perhaps even
It’s important to have conversations about what you know and what
you’re going to do. Just as important is to share what you don’t know:
people may tend to think you know something when in fact you don’t, and
assume you’re holding out on them. Sit down with your audiences and
talk with them. Craft and send clear, proactive messages they can walk
away with, even if it is about uncertainty or bad news. Explain, “I can
tell you this but I can’t tell you that and here’s why.” This builds
enormous credibility: people want to trust you.
In summary, building a strong board is important, hard work. A Board
that welcomes differences, makes tough decisions, takes timely action,
and speaks with one voice while honoring all its members’ opinions, is
firing on all cylinders.