A Board's Effectiveness Lies with its Leaders

I have written previously about the crucial importance of good boards of directors (or boards of trustees--the terms seem to be used interchangeably in orchestra governance, though they probably should not be). A well-functioning board is absolutely essential to a successful orchestra.

As I spend more time with orchestras and their boards, I understand more and more the importance of good board leaders. In fact, a good board will become less good if its leader is not strong and effective. As boards change makeup over time, it is too easy for a good board to slip into mediocrity or worse. It is the board leadership that must prevent that.

This starts, of course, with the board chair--but extends to the leadership team, whether it be vice-chairs, committee chairs, or the executive committee. It is whoever really guides and shapes the agenda and direction of the board, and it has to do with tone.

What do I mean by "tone?"  It might be easier to define that by using negative examples. A board that constantly revisits the decisions it has made because a few strong-willed (and strong-voiced) members of the board will not accept that decision is a board with a serious problem of tone. Tone, to me, means that at all times the discussion and deliberation of a board are constructive, mutually supportive, and honest without being mean-spirited. And once a consensus is arrived at, it is accepted by all. (Those who absolutely cannot accept it may resign from the board; what they may not do is continue to raise the same issue at meeting after meeting.) It is the chair of the board, supported by other leaders, who must prevent this from happening--who must rule such discussions out of order and find the polite but firm way to do so.

Similarly, it is the leadership of the board who must devote serious time to thinking about how the board works, how meetings actually happen, whether committees are truly functioning. It is the leadership of the board who appoint committee chairs--and when they are good leaders, they appoint those chairs according to ability, not according to people's desires. (Yes, ability and desire may match--and that is lucky--but they may also not match.)  As longtime readers of this blog know, I'm a huge fan of the business guru Jim Collins, and one of his principles of the successful organization is that the right people are on the right seats on the bus. Committee chairs must have a natural aptitude for the subject matter their committees are responsible for. Board recruiting must be done to specifically recruit those skill-sets. But then it takes leadership, and courage, to not appoint someone to chair a committee that that person very much wants to chair, if you know that he or she actually lacks the knowledge and skill to do it. Committee chairs must have the same skills as board leaders: getting the most out of people, directing agendas and meetings toward a constructive conclusion, creating the right atmosphere for conversations that matter. People who must dominate a room, or who have little patience for process and for a wide range of views, are not natural committee chairs or leaders.

One of the biggest problems for nonprofit boards is that people join them in hopes of doing good, but also having fun. There is a natural tendency to avoid unpleasantness of any kind--even if it would be constructive unpleasantness to keep a discussion focused. One result of this, ironically, is that one or two people who do not play well in the sandbox can, in fact, make the experience of a board quite unpleasant for the rest, and because no one wants to say anything, the quality of meetings deteriorates. This is where leaders must lead. I have experienced, sadly, more than one board that disintegrated into something approaching helplessness because firm leadership was not exercised by the chair.

July 31, 2009 10:21 AM | | Comments (2)




This is an excellent column on an issue of great importance. One thing I would add to the issue of accepting consensus: it is not only not acceptable to continue to bring up an issue regarding which a decision has been reached, it is also unacceptable to trash-talk or undermine that decision on a one-to-one basis or in elevator talk outside the regular meetings.

How right you are -- I always refer to these as "the meeting after the meeting," and they are very destructive to organizational alignment and functionality.

If more people were familiar with and used Robert's Rules of Order correctly, this would not be a problem. Its structure allows decisions to be made efficiently with the proper amount of fair and open discussion, allows smaller groups to act with more informality, and does not allow a group smaller than a third of the body to hijack the meeting. Total consensus is unlikely, but Robert's allows the majority viewpoint to be determined after both sides are heard. A minority that feels it has been treated fairly and heard will generally be more cooperative.


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