I sit on the board of a not-for-profit organization engaged in transforming leadership in the not-for-profit sector and we design and deliver a lot of governance education to executive directors and their boards. We strive to lead by example and model what we teach. We just completed our annual board evaluation process and many things are going extremely well in how we operate and govern. And then there is this comment: “We need to be careful to keep taking the longer view - we easily slip into the weeds in discussion.” Sigh. We are just like everybody else.
Pretty much every chief executive I have ever worked with has logged the same ‘observation’ of the board: they can get awfully mired in the detail. When I try to reassure them their experience is not unique, I tend to get a look of profound skepticism. Because when you are the chief executive and your board is triple-checking the math or debating the word in a sentence, you can get a little paranoid. A board that dives down and gets stuck in the weeds is, unfortunately, the rule rather than the exception. This dynamic occurs even though directors would rather shoot themselves than be described as tactical or meddling.
One of the most difficult and often unexpected tasks a chief executive undertakes is the management of his or her board. A first-time CEO is often blown over by the nuanced complexity of this task. And for some reason, prior experience as a board member seems to be little pre-requisite for effectively managing your own board.
Rather than write one more article reminding us all of the role of the board and the difference between governance and management, I thought it might be worth exploring - from the point of view of a psychologist - why the ‘detail-absorbed board’ phenomena is so prevalent and what you can do to alleviate it.
Why boards get in the weeds
Some of the reasons boards struggle with maintaining a strategic focus have more to do with being human than they do with being a board member.
The human brain uses data and detail to create big pictures and spot trends. Our brains formulate narratives by accumulating details. Because the board member’s brain actively engages with the organization sporadically, it takes time, and a lot of data, to build up a coherent picture and elevate facts to insight. Management tries to help by providing (often hundreds of pages of) information which it expects board members to digest in 7 days or less. It reminds me of my first week in graduate school when each professor handed out 350 pages of reading for discussion in next week’s class. When board members ask a lot of detail-oriented questions, it is probably because their brains are still trying to piece together information and make sense of it. And some brains require (and adore) more data than others. Given the nature of the human brain, it is possible that ‘dropping into’ an organization a few times a year may not be an ideal rhythm when the goal of the board is to provide strategic oversight and input.
The role of the board member is complex and multi-faceted. In the world of not-for-profit board governance and leadership excellence, we talk about three roles boards play: fiduciary, strategic and generative (Chait & Ryan & Taylor, 2005). Fiduciary responsibility is a natural draw for the detail-oriented. Strategic responsibility can also elicit its fair share of detailed questioning as board members seek to understand an organization’s priorities, rationale and method of executing on those priorities. Generative responsibility is the playground for future-oriented, strategic, conceptual thought. It needs more than a 10-minute time slot. If you look at your board meeting agenda and the topics up for discussion, it will probably become painfully clear why board members show up with their pencils sharpened.
Under stress, strategists become obsessive-compulsive detail-oriented problem-solvers. Personality is a funny thing. There are our normal tendencies and then there are our stress behaviours. For some strange reason, stress behaviour is often the exact opposite of normal behaviour. Since the issues boards face are rarely run-of-the-mill, are frequently high-stakes, and the voting members do not have any control over their execution, stress responses kick in. Suddenly you find yourself staring down a group of highly strategic people who all want to dive in and solve the problem - or even argue about the right method to solve the problem - instead of formulating brilliant questions that cast a light on the shadowy corners.
How to elevate the contribution of the board
There is a tendency for us to make assumptions and draw conclusions about the character and competency of board members when it might be more helpful to take a step back and think about them as human machines with predictable patterns of behaviour. If you can anticipate, you can try to over-ride. Here are three suggestions for facilitating the strategic contribution of the board:
Manage the human brain. The way information is prioritized and communicated can lighten the cognitive load and help the board maintain a strategic focus. If you communicate strategically, you increase the likelihood of getting strategic input in return.
Make space for generative contribution. Recognize the board is being asked to play multiple roles. If you want a strategic contribution you have to create the time and headspace for that. The middle of the audit committee meeting may not be the best place to insert a conceptual discussion about the evolution of the risk management model.
Anticipate stress reactions. When people walk into a room to deal with an issue, they have probably had just a few days or weeks to get their heads into it and, suddenly, you are asking them to make a high-stakes decision. As a board member, what I hate most is being surprised with something and then told a decision is urgent. What it says to me is that the chief executive is a) not on top of the business, b) lacks respect for me, my role and my decision-making process and/or, c) wants to rush something through before I’ve had a chance to think about it. If you are going to ask the board to confront an important decision that will likely cause anxiety, plan for that.
A board can make a significant contribution beyond fiduciary due diligence. And this is, in fact, why most people sign up to serve. Not just for the pleasure of combing through financial statements and risk management policies, but also to ignite the strategic capacity of an organization. Do they get too stuck in the detail? Probably. And, maybe, it isn’t just their fault.
Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards. Richard Chait, William Ryan & Barbara E. Taylor. John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2005.
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Rebecca Schalm, Ph.D.
Founder & CEO