How to Engage Boards on Hot-Button Topics

According to two association leaders, CEOs need to engage boards on social issue challenges. And they can do it without things getting messy.

Since the start of the pandemic, nonprofit boards have been busier than ever—more meetings, more Zoom calls. But despite all that conversation, boards can still struggle to determine their proper role. That’s especially true as pressure to take on social issues has increased. According to a recent “Future of the Boardroom” survey by the National Association of Corporate Directors, 30 percent of board members say that “CEOs staying silent on social issues” will be less acceptable in the future.

In that environment, boards play a role in ensuring that the organization’s broader goals are established. “It’s the board’s responsibility to steer the company to think longer term,” said NACD Board Chair Sue Cole. “The CEO is in the heat of everything, and has to be very responsive to things that come along. The board can serve as the lens to refocus a little bit on longer-term purpose.”

But that’s not to say that boards don’t have a role in conversations about hot-button topics. Indeed, that’s a conversation CEOs should intentionally encourage, says NACD CEO Peter Gleason, because it’s a conversation about stakeholders—customers, members, and staff. “CEOs are the ones who’ll get asked these questions, but the expectations aren’t just from their shareholder base,” he said. “These are very challenging issues that can put you in very dire straits should you not approach it appropriately.”

So, how do you approach it appropriately? As CEO, Gleason sees his role as leading conversations that push board members out of their bubbles and out of their comfort zones, not giving predetermined answers but launching debate. For any such topic, he says, “my job preparing the directors for that discussion was to gather a variety of viewpoints on the issue and send them multiple readings that they had to dig into,” he said. “Directors always come with their own perspectives around an issue: What they’ve learned from other boards that they serve on, their own reading. But people home in on their favorite source for those things. So they read the same materials over and over and over again.”

You’ve got a lot of well-intended people who want to do the right thing, but they need the tools and the up-to-date thinking to do it.

Sue Cole, NACD

But just as important as helping board members get up to speed on a particular issue, Cole and Gleason say, is making sure that boards have the preparation to think flexibly and strategically. NACD’s Future of the Boardroom survey asked directors about the changes to American boardrooms they anticipate in the next three years, and the biggest ones involve rethinking how they go about their work: Integrating ESG metrics alongside financial ones, doing more with data, spending more time on board work itself, and holding underperforming board members accountable. 

NACD, for its part, has been formalizing orientation around the skills that board members need: In 2020, it launched a certification program for corporate directors that covers the essentials of board work and helps them keep up with regulatory changes that relate to governance. The program is meant to address a problem as pronounced in the association world as the corporate one—people who want to be board leaders without much guidance in what the job requires. “You’ve got a lot of well-intended people who want to do the right thing, but they need the tools and the up-to-date thinking to do it,” Cole said.

But whether the training is done through a formal certification or orientation program, Gleason said the goal should be to train volunteer leaders in how to work as a board, not school them in every operational challenge that arises. “It seems like over the last three or four years, every critical issue like cybersecurity demands that you have to have an expert on it on your board,” he said. “That’s not a viable solution.”

What do you do to prepare your board for conversations around difficult topics? Share your experiences in the comments.

(Paul Campbell/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!