Board Development

This is the third in a series of articles that examine some of the analysis and solutions provided by the work of John Carver and his Policy Governance® model for board of directors governance (www.policygovernance.org), applicable to business, government and non-profit organizations that want to increase their organizational effectiveness.

A policy is a kind of plan, explicit before the fact, or implicit afterward. Many modern managers of public and nonprofit organizations have applied modern management theory and techniques in their various operations. The wrench in the gears tends to be that governing boards (board of directors) have not kept apace. Where organizational management has grown, board governance has not. Thus, the pressure for improved management has created a gap between the ability to manage and the ability to govern, which makes leadership a brittle commodity. Organizational leadership often threatens governing boards (board of directors) because most boards know that they cannot keep up with the demands and needs that management continues to present.

CEOs tend to “stage manage” board meetings so that their boards (board of directors) don’t cause damage to the organization. Staff develops board agendas and recruits board help in the accomplishment of their mission. However, in such situations we find that the board or directors, charged with organizational leadership, is following rather than leading.

Carver’s Policy Governance® model provides a structure that frees both staff and board to accomplish their different tasks, providing increased freedom, responsibility and accountability to all parties. The fundamental character or driving force of every organization (and every person, as well) issues from values or beliefs. What a person or organization values and believes significantly impacts their actions and activities. Values provide the driving force for all human activity.

Thus, by focusing on values and beliefs directly, boards can better provide organizational leadership. Carver provides a model of board of directors structure that allows boards to incorporate values and perspectives through the use of policy development. “Values dominate policies that are instructive to staff, that is, policies that tell staff what to do or not do. Perspectives dominate the policies which codify the board’s own process and relationships” (Carver).

Conventionally, policy has referred to any and all board of directors utterances or actions. But as boards have been short-sighted and reactive (rather than proactive), they approve staff actions or agendas one month only to rescind them later because they produced unexpected consequences. Thus, boards tend to provide “mop up” services for staff leadership. Too often, boards default their leadership responsibility because they can never get out from behind the swell of problems caused by a lack of leadership.

In contrast, leaders clarify values, and values both produce and limit action. Sometimes values provide the driving force for doing something, and sometimes they provide the limiting force for not doing something. Thus, the clarification of values, beliefs and perspectives serves as a tune up for the engine of organizational development.

Carver sites four reasons why policy-focused leadership is a hallmark of governance improvement.

  1. Leverage and efficiency. By clarifying and tweaking organizational and/or corporate values, the board can affect more issues with less effort.
  2. Expertise. By clarifying and tweaking organizational and/or corporate values, the board can guide the organization without itself having to have all the requisite skills to manage it.
  3. Fundamentals. By clarifying and tweaking organizational and/or corporate values, the board concerns itself with the heart of the organization, which provides the board with a compelling legitimacy that in turn gives the organization a renewed sense of purpose and direction.
  4. Vision and inspiration. By clarifying and tweaking organizational and/or corporate values, the board infuses the organization with heightened morale, interest and excitement.

“Directing an organization can be like rearing a child. Controlling every behavior is a fatiguing and ultimately impossible charge. Inculcating the policies (proper values) of life is far more effective and, even if some slippage occurs on individual behaviors, it is the only serviceable approach in the long run” (Carver).

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