Early in my governance consulting career, I made a rookie mistake that taught me a valuable lesson that has served me well over the years. When the CEO of a chamber of commerce in the Southeastern US asked me to assess the chamber board’s governing structure and processes and to prepare a set of recommendations for presentation to the full board after running them by him, I jumped at the opportunity. Not only would I earn a nice fee, I’d be working with business leaders in a major metropolitan area. So I did the necessary research – interviewing board members and reviewing chamber governance documentation such as the bylaws and board meeting minutes – and prepared a report analyzing chamber governance issues and recommending steps to take the board’s governing performance up a big notch.
If I do say so myself, the report was pertinent and well-written, and the CEO was pleased. So I flew into town for a special board work session at which I would go through the recommendations in detail, and we’d reach agreement on next steps in the process. But, sad to say, there were to be no next steps. In a nutshell, the session was an excruciating experience, for me at least. Only five minutes or so into my presentation, a few of the longer tenured, more influential board members began to pick the recommendations apart. More junior board members sat back and watched the session unravel. The CEO, who had seemed so supportive, didn’t come to my defense. The bottom line? My report was tabled. I was not retained to assist in implementing any of the recommendations; in fact I’m not sure if any were ever acted on. The only silver lining for me was being paid my fee.
Of course it didn’t take long for me to learn that significant change on the governance front tends to happen only when a majority of board members are strongly committed to the change. And experience has demonstrated that ownership, which is the product of active Board engagement, fuels commitment. As you’ll learn from the video interview I recently recorded with Board Chairman George Egan and President J. J. Harris of the Clay County Economic Development Corporation, fostering Board members’ ownership was at the heart of the EDC’s “High-Impact Governing Initiative.” Therefore, the Initiative was kicked off by a daylong Board-Executive Team retreat at which governing issues were explored and possible governance improvements were brainstormed. The use of nine breakout groups over the course of the day ensured active engagement. And when the consultant retained to assist the process prepared a follow-through report with action recommendations, he reviewed it with a steering committee headed by George and including three other Board members and J. J. The Steering Committee members signed the report and actually took the lead in presenting the action recommendations to the full Board. They were passed unanimously, and as George and J. J. report in the interview, are being implemented.
Our readers will be interested in George and J. J.’s description of one of the key initiatives: expanding the Board from 11 to 21 members, for two primary reasons: to bring more diverse experience and expertise to bear in making Board decisions; and to strengthen the EDC’s ties to the business community and key stakeholders in Clay County. I will only observe that the Clay County EDC Board deserves credit for avoiding the slippery slope of Board downsizing, which has reduced the diversity, brainpower, and political influence of all too many nonprofit boards in the recent past. Reducing a board’s governing effectiveness and influence in exchange for a presumed increase in board “efficiency” (smaller boards being easier to manage and control) must be one of the most harmful fads ever promoted by self-proclaimed governance gurus.