I was recently talking with a board member whose nonprofit had gone through a pretty elaborate strategic planning process that had, so far as I could tell, generated some respectable planning products, such as an updated vision statement and a set of long-range strategic targets with measurable indicators for monitoring progress. “So,” I said, “tell me about the board’s role in the process.” “That’s simple,” she said, “we were asked to bless the plan at the tail-end when staff presented it in a special work session.” She went on to say, “It’s just another example of not making a big difference in our work on the board, and I’ve about had it with being treated like a high-level audience; that’s not what I signed on for. And don’t think it’s just me. We’re all pretty discouraged about the role we’re playing.”
The bottom line, which I see all too often: good staff work; a decent product; a tremendous missed opportunity to strengthen the board-CEO partnership; and erosion of the partnership as a result. If the CEO in this case had been wearing his Psychologist-In-Chief Hat, he would have recognized that board members who find their governing work ego satisfying and feel like owners of the work make better partners. And if he’d been wearing his Chief Process Designer Hat, he would have taken the trouble to map out practical ways to involve his board members in the strategic planning process that would provide them with ego satisfaction and foster feelings of ownership.
To take a simple example, many CEOs these days who are sensitive to the psychological and emotional dimension of their relationship with their board design into their strategic planning process an annual board-executive retreat as a way of involving board members at a high level early in the process when they can make a real contribution, rather than just serving as an audience for a finished plan. By using breakout groups led by board members to brainstorm vision and values, strategic issues, and possible strategic targets, they not only generate serious front-end board input that builds board ownership of the ultimate strategic plan, they also provide board members with an ego-satisfying experience. And these board-savvy CEOs also well know that if their board has a planning committee that is responsible for overseeing the strategic planning process, they will add a large dollop of ego gratification and ownership. Bottom line: a stronger board-CEO partnership that is better able to withstand the inevitable stresses and strains at the top of the organization in these really challenging times.
A closing observation from my experience over the years: CEOs who spend their time worrying about board “micromanagement” and obsessing about the need to keep the board out of their business are very likely to miss relationship-building opportunities because of their defensive mind-set. The two hats I’ve talked about are very unlikely to be tried on, and the board-CEO relationship will suffer as a consequence.