A couple of weeks ago the chief executive of a nonprofit
serving adults and children with disabilities called me to discuss my
facilitating a 1 ½-day strategic planning retreat for her board and executive
team. She asked what I thought about our
devoting 3 or 4 hours of the retreat to developing her board’s governing capacity,
in addition to our visioning and issue identification work. I agreed that a governing session made the
best of sense, and we got to talking about governing issues in her agency.
She kicked off our discussion by saying, “At the top of my
list is getting my board downsized.” “Oh
really,” I responded, “why is that?” It
turns out that she’d recently attended a conference workshop at which the
presenter, a board consultant, had observed that the “ideal” size of a
nonprofit board was 9 to 15 members tops, and anyone with boards much larger
than 15 should seriously consider downsizing.
“Well, Doug,” she said, “by that standard, my 25-member board is an
obvious candidate for downsizing.”
To make a long story short, after I pointed out that I had
worked with any number of boards with more than 25 members that functioned as
really high-impact governing bodies, and that reducing her board’s size would
come at a steep cost in terms of diminished diversity, brainpower, access to
resources, and political clout, we agreed that she should avoid the slippery
slope of downsizing. We agreed that it
would make better sense to concentrate on clarifying her current board’s role,
updating its committee structure, and mapping out processes for more effective
board involvement in such critical governing processes as strategic planning
and performance monitoring.
Why tell you this story?
Because it’s another example of how much really bad advice – what I call
“fallacious little golden rules” – is floating around in the governing
arena. My advice to my board development
clients and other colleagues is “caveat emptor” – buyer beware! Be a cautious consumer of governing counsel;
always be on guard, never take such advice at face value, and always, always,
always think more than twice before acting.
Take board downsizing, whose advocates more often than not, in my
experience, base their fallacious small-is-better wisdom on a negative
premise: “Boards are dangerous, always
capable of ‘micro-managing,’ they think,
“and so we’ve got to keep the board small enough to maintain control and
contain the threat.” They seldom put it
quite this baldly, but, believe me, that’s where they’re coming from. So “caveat emptor” should be your watchword
in the governing business.
One reason I’m writing my newest book, Becoming Really Board-Savvy: 10 Tips for CEOs and Top Executives,
is to provide you with sound, thoroughly tested advice in a high-stakes arena –
and, of course, to help you become a more discerning consumer of governing
wisdom. The book will hit the streets in
June and will be available on our Books and CD ROMs page.