How Boards Can Remain Grounded and a Calming Factor in an Increasingly Turbulent World
(Originally appeared in the July 15th, 2020 'Across the Board' publication, a Board Director, Board Advisor, C-Level, and Business Leader publication reaching 26,500+ exceptional business leaders in over 70 countries with articles focused on leadership, strategy, and governance topics - sign up here)
I'll save you from another ubiquitous writeup on 'leading through uncertain times,' as this seems to be a popular title for many recent leadership articles and webinar events (I, too, am guilty). When it comes to savvy Board Members and experienced leaders, they are continuously in the thought process that they are ALWAYS in uncertain times - change, sometimes at lightening speed, is inevitable. They know that any other state of being is inherently fertile ground for the sowing of complacency and cumulative risk. Show me a Board Director or business leader who believes their business model is untouchable and I will accurately predict that company's demise.
In recent months, organizations and their Boards have been under unprecedented pressure as the perfect storm of a global pandemic, mass cultural unrest, and looming long-term financial challenges have all hit at once. It is entirely possible that the average Board Member's time commitment to fulfill their duties and effectively support their organization(s) will increase quite significantly in 2020 and the years to come. The topic of 'overboarding,' when a Director is on too many Boards and commonly isn't able to dedicate the required time to perform their duties, is already getting additional attention in many boardrooms. Board Members have to first and foremost be available to be effective, and also be willing and able to allocate significant additional time during crises. "Purposeful Boards begin with passionate Directors who are fully dedicated to the values and mission of the organization, and willing to dedicate the required attention," states Raphael Goldsworthy, Managing Director of Better Boards Australasia, the organization hosting 'The Better Boards Conference 2020.' "This is true in normal operating conditions and especially during challenging times, when a Director's deeper involvement is commonly required." Having the focus of experienced and available Board Members who consider a holistic and integrated view of a crisis is an invaluable asset.
We commonly hear complaints relating to many governments being in a state of paralysis. With an open mindset, I like to think of this in most cases as 'by design,' essentially allowing time for debate and idea sharing to prevent hasty decisions with far reaching, and sometimes irreversible, consequences. A checks-and-balances of sorts. Even when a required outcome is obvious (the 'what' and 'why' - or goals), it is commonly the 'how' (strategy) that becomes the riskiest endeavor. Some of the best ideas with seemingly profound positive impacts have proved complete failures for exactly this reason - they simply couldn't be implemented efficiently, effectively, nor in an agreed manner. Boards are designed with this in mind. As a governance and strategy body, Boards are mandated to ensure the well-being of the organization they serve, essentially acting as a sounding board for management, provider of experience-backed ideas and concepts, and a measurer of progress towards agreed goals. However, in both the government and organization scenarios, early misalignment is commonly found within the area of formal and agreed goals (the 'what' and 'why'). For many governments, synchronizing goals across seemingly disparate and polarized party lines has become increasingly difficult, hence the lack of alignment, mistrust, and unrest witnessed around the world. For organizations, Boards have the advantage of working within smaller groups, and although goal alignment may not be 100% at the onset, a simply majority vote is commonly the deciding factor on final direction (with the understanding that previously dissenting Board Members have a duty to back the overall Board's agreed decision - think of this as 'the art of respectful dissent'). This ability to get to 'goal conclusion' more quickly is a powerful tool for a Board, if indeed they are properly structured to operate this way.
When goals are fully understood and the entire organization is aligned in support of their accomplishment, a deep level of comfort at many levels is attained: organizational alignment, emotional groundedness, deep commitment, invested attitude, purposeful engagement, outcome ownership, feelings of being in control, actionability, drive to collaborate, and many more. For a Board of Directors, an effective and efficient goal setting and goal change process can be a powerful tool to bring about these positive outcomes.
This example process is not to say that all ideas should emanate from the Executive Committee, but as with all processes, there should be an assigned process owner and starting point. Housing this responsibility within the Executive Committee (or a commensurate Board Committee such as the Strategic Planning Committee or even the Governance Committee) allows for this ownership. Regarding organization goal setting, this should be accomplished in conjunction with the CEO (or the Executive Director as it relates to nonprofits).
Remember that many highly-functioning Boards have two sets of goals for any given time period. The first set of goals are the organization's agreed overall goals with an understanding of how the Board will support and govern their achievement. The second set of goals is specific to the Board, outlining what the Board itself wants to accomplish. These are typically focused on process introduction, process improvement, Board education, best practices inclusion, and other Board-related items. The process diagram shown can be used in both instances.
Consistently communicating the organization's goals and progress is an extremely important task, especially when making changes to the goals, as has been witnessed within many organizations throughout the global pandemic. The best Boards convey the 'Seven C's when communicating - calm, cool, collected, concerned, credible, capable, and confident. The Board, as well as the entire organization, will be better for it.
Is your Board prepared to systematically set and change goals?