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Board Management

Keep Your Board Focused on Strategy

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While some board members may be more comfortable tinkering with an organization’s management or operations, their role is to concentrate on the long-term big picture. Here’s how to keep your board’s focus where it belongs.

Board members often need some help to build their strategic thinking skills. And that’s not a dig at them.

“Much of their leadership experience may have been in management and operations, so what they focus on is what they know best—management and operations,” says Glenn Tecker, chairman and co-CEO of the leadership consultancy Tecker International.

But as board members, their role is to stick to organizational strategy—and it’s up to CEOs to guide them in that direction. “The chief staff officer needs to make sure the board is out of the operational weeds and focused on leading the organization successfully into the future,” Tecker says.

Keeping the focus on strategy has never been an easy task, and it’s become increasingly difficult since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tecker says he’s seen CEOs grappling with boards that are moving in one of two non-strategic directions over the past year. The first is that they are disengaging or not showing up fully for board meetings. “They’re so much going on in everyone’s lives that it’s difficult for people to focus or to want to dig deep strategically,” he says.

“Much of what is happening in the world is fluid and uncontrollable, so people are turning to things they can control. For boards, this often shows up in wanting to manage an association’s programs and operations.” —Glenn Tecker, Tecker International

The second is that boards are moving toward a tendency to micromanage. “Much of what is happening in the world is fluid and uncontrollable, so people are turning to things they can control,” Tecker says. “For boards, this often shows up in wanting to manage an association’s programs and operations.”

All this puts more pressure on CEOs to better orient their boards and to catch them before they drift toward those weeds. Here are four ways CEOs can help their boards stay strategic under challenging circumstances.

Be transparent. To start, CEOs should communicate their desire for open and transparent strategic dialogue. “They can also model how they want to communicate in the way they share both good and bad news—without hyping or downplaying—and in the way they ask questions and listen,” Tecker says. CEOs should resist the urge to present only fully formed strategies, and instead get input from the board around ideas that might still be only half-baked. “Even better, CEOs should encourage the board to develop strategic options that differ from theirs—and give the board enough information, as well as sufficient time and space, to do so,” he says.

Facilitate the entire board experience. Too often, board service is seen as merely a series of meetings. “In reality, the board experience outside the formal board sessions—whether one-on-one conversations or monthly update emails—is equally important,” says Tecker. “And by influencing what happens between board meetings, CEOs have the opportunity to curate and even co-create the full board experience.” Education and training should also be part of the experience for board members. “Bring in speakers and offer creative learning opportunities where board members can increase their comfort with strategic thinking,” Tecker says.

Hold shorter, more frequent strategy-focused meetings. Zoom fatigue is real, and with virtual board meetings expected to remain in place for at least the early part of 2021, CEOs needs to be mindful of how they handle virtual strategy sessions with their boards. “My advice would be shorter meetings that happen more frequently,” Tecker says. “In the current landscape, board members will be overwhelmed if they’re invited to a full-day virtual meeting and likely will start to shut down after about three hours.” Instead, Tecker suggests transitioning to a series of 90-minute meetings where members can delve into ideas or strategic decisions.

Take advantage of tension. CEOs who want their boards to be more strategic should understand that tension can be leveraged for the greater good. “Constructive tension may even be necessary to bring the best out of a board—to drive higher-quality dialogue and therefore higher-quality outcomes,” Tecker says. However, the key to achieving positive outcomes is to make sure that the tension remains constructive. “When tension is felt but not transparently addressed, for instance, the action that results from it can be flawed,” he says. That why it’s important, when discussions grow heated, to accept and name the tension instead of avoiding it and allowing it to become destructive.

“In this environment, it’s no longer enough for boards to be solid and reliable executors of their fiduciary duties,” says Tecker. “They must transcend their oversight role to be a tremendous strategic asset.”

Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editorial director of Associations Now.

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