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About Us

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.

Build relationships
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.

Manage transitions
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.

Value process
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 unexpected quarters.

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 un-used.

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 regulators.

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.

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Updated: 2016/06/30

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