I just had reason to revisit the wonderful writing of John Carver on governing boards (you can find a useful summary of his work here, or read the book). And I was struck again by the clarity and consistency of his approach to an otherwise hazy endeavor. If you can get past his personal hubris (one of his books calls him the ”Creator of the World’s Most Provocative and Systematic Governance Model”), you’ll find true insights into boards that focus, and boards that flail.
One of the most powerful elements of Carver’s model is his principal of ”One Voice.” We all know that governing boards work best when they can engage in honest and open debate, but then move forward with clarity and consistency. While other writing on board governance covers this ground in aspirational tones (”can’t we all just get along?”), Carver crafts a practical approach to the challenge.
A governing board only has ”one voice,” because its structure and its nature offers no alternative. It’s ”one voice or none at all.”
In Carver’s view, a governing board only speaks when it makes a decision following its accepted process (a resolution put to a majority vote, usually). Up until that moment — in all the conversations, disagreements, debates, and modifications — it’s not the board speaking, only the board members. Says he:
The board speaks authoritatively when it passes an official motion at a properly constituted meeting. Statements by board members have no authority. In other words, the board speaks with one voice or not at all. The ”one voice” principle makes it possible to know what the board has said, and what it has not said. This is important when the board gives instructions to one or more subordinates. ”One voice” does not require unanimous votes. But it does require all board members, even those who lost the vote, to respect the decision that was made. Board decisions can be changed by the board, but never by board members.
While the distinction may seem semantic, it’s extraordinarily powerful. It clarifies for board members that they have no individual authority over the organization, only authority as a collective. It clarifies for staff and leadership the difference between debate and decision — only one of which should drive their work. During a two-hour board meeting, the board may speak only a few times — even though the conversation has dragged on forever.
Of course, the ”one voice” principal does require a lot of its board members — that they avoid the post-game politics when a resolution doesn’t go as they had hoped; that they don’t plot with sidegroups on the board to block the action despite the vote to move forward; that staff doesn’t collar individual board members to find a workaround that’s more to their liking.
Carver’s approach still isn’t easy, but at least it’s clear. And that’s a massive step forward for anyone that cares to take it.