Board work is like any other team endeavor: “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships” (Michael Jordan).
Boards are teams and how they decide to engage with one another to fulfill their responsibilities determines how successful they will be. This article is about four pillars of successful boards based on my nearly 40 years of experience supporting and serving on nonprofit governing boards.
The four pillars are offered as a framework for success, not a prescription to be applied to fix an acute problem . It is entirely possible for two different boards to implement these four pillars different ways, but still encompass the fundamentals of each pillar as applied to their culture and situation.
The Four Pillars
Independence – There should be sufficient independence between and amongst members of the governing board in decision making.
In a trade association this means no two directors should be the same member company and where possible, directors should be from different parts of the industry’s sector (e.g., different parts of a supply chain, or distribution channels, etc.)
In a professional society, this might mean that directors are not from the same employer and where possible, directors should be from different subspecialties or practice areas.
While this pillar is very closely related to the diversity pillar, it differs in the sense that strong boards avoid a concentration of professional or business motivations within their associations’ governing boards.
Diversity – This pillar concerns perspective to ensure that board deliberations and decisions benefit from a diversity of views and interpretations of the same data or information when making strategic decisions.
Equity – There are no hierarchies on strong governing boards. True, there are officer positions with specific duties and responsibilities to carry out the operational necessities of board governance, but equity is different than a hierarchy of functional responsibilities. Board members are peers and when it comes to casting votes on board matters, each vote is equal to any other vote. This equity should also appear in board deliberations and shared responsibility to execute board functions.
Courage – While group endeavors tend to yield safe and conservative choices, the long-term health and viability of any organization requires the courage to take calculated risks. Board members certainly do not accept board positions expecting to get into contentious situations with business and professional peers, but successful boards will find ways to engage in constructive criticism and debate that is not personal but, instead in the best interests of their organization’s viability. Successful board will engage in the hard work to find common ground among board members with different views and perspectives.
The benefits of embracing these four pillars include:
- greater service satisfaction for board members
- fulfilling the governance role vs. getting mired in operational management
- more enthusiastic staff and members
- higher likelihood of the success embodied in your association’s mission statement
In closing, it is important to remember that governing boards, like teams, are dynamic and always evolving. Perhaps it is most important to remember that successful boards are constantly paying attention to balancing the four pillars. Even if your board is successful balancing the four pillars at a point in time, it’s necessary to continue to nurture this optimal state. It’s easy to lose this balance if the association’s pipeline of new directors does not contribute to your board’s balance of the four pillars.