Several years ago, I served as an adviser for the Alliance for Advancing Nonprofit Healthcare as the organization produced a terrific report titled, "GREAT GOVERNANCE: A PRACTICAL GUIDE FOR BUSY BOARD LEADERS AND EXECUTIVES OF NONPROFIT HEALTH CARE ORGANIZATIONS. I think the recommendations in this report apply to any board of directors, not simply those operating in the nonprofit or healthcare space. One aspect of the report focused on developing a healthy board culture. I'm glad to have contributed to that portion especially, because it is such a challenging, yet important, aspect of effective governance. Here's the excerpt on board culture:
Great boards intentionally focus their time on critical issues, dedicating a substantial portion to strategic thinking, in addressing critical issues, they find ways to create healthy tension, constructive debate and respectful disagreement in the boardroom so that diverse perspectives are brought to bear in the decision-making process.
Key Action Steps:
Agenda Planning. Taking into consideration the overall board schedule for the year, the board chair and CEO jointly set in advance the meeting agenda, dedicating a substantial portion to strategic issues or ideas.
Agenda Construction. The agenda should be annotated with a clear description of the issue and purpose of each agenda item and/or required action. Time should be allocated proportionate to the importance of the matters to be discussed. Consequently, board meetings should begin with agenda items that require action at that particular meeting. The next significant block of time should be devoted to learning about and deliberating on critical strategic issues that are likely to require action in the intermediate-to-longer term, with the board chair prepared with specific questions to be addressed in order to focus those discussions. Routine presentations and reports should follow the action items and strategic deliberations, with as many as possible being handled via a “consent agenda.” As appropriate to the agenda, committee chairs should be given the opportunity to make presentations. The agenda should include an item at or near the end of each meeting for the identification and assignment of follow-up actions.
Preparing to Make Major Decisions.The board should rarely, if ever, make decisions on highly significant issues the first time they appear on the agenda. Adequate time should be provided for discussion at one or more meetings, with the decision made at a subsequent meeting. As noted earlier, the necessary information should be provided in a timely manner in advance of discussion, and the board should consider having at least one “outside” member to help stimulate robust discussion on major issues. In addition, the board chair should use one or more of the following techniques to help stimulate effective discussion:
- In advance of the meeting discussion, assigning alternative positions to two or more groups, requesting each group to make the best case for its position (irrespective of members’ personal views)
- Appointing “devil’s advocates,” on a rotating basis
- Encouraging all board members during the meeting to express and debate their diverse opinions and even, on occasion, to register minority votes
Oversight of Committee Work. Where committees are needed, the board should establish charters spelling out their charges, which should relate to the organization’s strategic priorities approved by the board. In addition, the board should challenge committee recommendations wherever appropriate and require periodic assessments of such committees, by their members and by the full board.