Beware Of The Slippery Slope Of Board Downsizing

by | Nov 8, 2012 | Board Capacity Building

Here’s a fact I’ve learned from my work with hundreds of boards over the years:  The more diverse your board is in terms of its membership, the more valuable your board’s contribution to your organization’s out-of-the-box change process is likely to be. It’s difficult to imagine having too much brainpower, knowledge, expertise, experience, connections, etc., in your boardroom when you’re dealing with complex issues; more is without question better.  And then you’ve got the symbolic aspect of diversity to consider – such things as gender, race, ethnicity, economic status – which can and often does influence the legitimacy of the change initiatives your board adds to your Change Investment Portfolio (CIP).  What this means in practice is that your organization should pay systematic, close attention to developing your board’s composition on an ongoing basis.

A key step in this direction is to assign a standing board committee responsibility for developing the board as a human resource.  Clients of mine have employed “nominating,” “executive,” “board operations,” and “governance” committees to get this job done.   Whatever its name, one of the committee’s key jobs is to develop and keep updated a detailed profile of the ideal board in terms of its composition, and to consciously use the profile in recruiting board members to fill gaps of one kind or another.  Let’s take a real life example:  a regional economic development corporation serving three counties in a metropolitan area.  The board’s governance committee, in a recent meeting I sat in on, dealt with the following questions when updating the profile of the corporation’s board:

  • To what extent should our board reflect the population of our three counties, in terms of gender, race and ethnicity?
  • What stakeholder organizations should be represented on our board  (for example, the  boards of county commissioners, chambers of commerce, postsecondary institutions)?
  • What is the appropriate mix of business representatives on the board (small, medium large businesses; engaged in manufacturing, financial, legal and other services; retail)?

It’s important to keep in mind that your board’s composition not only affects the quality of  board member involvement in planning out-of-the-box change, but also your board’s  contribution to implementing Change initiatives in your organization’s CIP.  On more than one occasion over the years, for example, I’ve seen board members who are prominent community leaders play a major role in securing funding from key stakeholders, such the local community foundation.  And I’ve seen well-connected board members enlist the support of stakeholder organizations that are critical to the success of particular Change initiatives.  One recent example is a school board member’s playing the leading role in securing a chamber of commerce board’s endorsement of the school district’s upcoming capital levy, and the chair of a public transportation board convincing the regional mayors and managers association to support the development of a downtown trolley line.

A very important related question is whether it makes sense to increase the board’s size in order to achieve the diversity that we need and want.  In my professional opinion, larger boards – up to a sensible maximum size – tend to make a more powerful contribution to out-of-the-box change, very simply because they bring more resources to the change game.  Can a board be too large?  I suppose so, but I’ve found that a far more common problem is boards that are too small, limiting the contribution that the boards can make to planning out-of-the-box change.   This is to some extent the result of wrong-headed consultants traipsing around the country preaching board down-sizing as a board development strategy.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that the obvious costs of traveling down the slippery downsizing slope are pretty steep:  less brainpower, knowledge, and expertise; reduced stature and visibility; less diversity in every sense; fewer connections in the wider world; less access to resources; to name some of the more important.  And the benefits are not only few, but dubious:  a board that’s easier to manage (or, often, to control); that’s less expensive to support; that’s more cohesive (hardly a virtue when you think of identifying out-of-the-box issues).  What’s too big a board?  There’s no scientific answer, but I’d suggest that a 21 to 30-member board leaves room for considerable diversity without the risk of unwieldiness.

Adapted from Doug Eadie’s new book, Leading Out-of-the-Box Change (www.leadingoutoftheboxchange.com)

About the Author: Doug Eadie

President & CEO of Doug Eadie & Company, Inc., Doug Eadie assists superintendents in building rock-solid partnerships with their school boards.

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