Taking a Holistic Approach to Strengthening Your Board's Culture

“Nothing’s really changed, and that’s terribly disappointing.” This is what the CEO told me in a recent coaching session about the results of a daylong board-CEO “team building” retreat that’d been held around three months earlier. The session had been scheduled, the CEO explained, in response the perception of a majority of board members and the CEO that the board’s culture had become increasingly dysfunctional, characterized by uncivil debate in public board meetings, including some board members actually challenging their colleagues’ motives, and by board members snipping at the CEO and members of her executive team, etc.

This CEO went on to tell me that the team building retreat had been energizing and at times really entertaining. They’d used breakout groups to identify communication and interaction issues and to brainstorm ways to deal with them, and they’d actually arrived at consensus on “rules” for working together as a harmonious governing team. But, three months later, it was – much to the CEO’s chagrin – back to business as usual on the board. The changes they’d agreed to had turned out to be essentially cosmetic and ephemeral.

After spending a few minutes talking about the retreat and its failure to produce important changes in the board’s culture, I pointed out that I didn’t find her account very surprising. In fact, over the years I’d had heard dozens of disillusioned CEOs report the dismal results of similar board “team building” sessions. The problem, I went on to explain, was taking a simplistic approach to a tremendously complex subject. In my experience, the only effective way to accomplish significant and enduring improvement in a board’s – or any organization’s – culture is to
take a holistic approach going well beyond interaction and communication processes and guidelines. The object is to reach consensus on:

• The core values that should guide the board in making its governing decisions and judgments (for example, a commitment to active citizen involvement in the authority’s long-range capital planning)
• The board’s governing role and functions: what I call in my work the board’s “governing mission” (in contrast to your authority’s overall mission); for example, that the board is responsible for ensuring that the authority’s annual operating plan include detailed, measurable performance targets)
• The process the board will follow in managing its own performance as the authority’s governing body (for example, that the board’s Governance Committee will monitor board members’ performance and identify issues needing attention)
• The board’s structure: the kinds of standing committees that will foster productive interaction among board members
• And the processes for board member engagement in key governing areas (e.g., strategic planning) that will generate deep board member satisfaction in doing meaningful governing work that truly does make a difference

Experience has taught that taking a serious, holistic approach to strengthening a board’s culture pays off in terms not only of more effective governing decisions, but also of the board’s (and the authority’s) public image and credibility.
You’re invited to comment and share your experience in strengthening your board’s culture.