Peter Drucker said it: they don’t work.

Yet there are millions of them, all trying to contribute to the betterment of something: public schools, universities, credit unions, banks, youth clubs, associations, civic clubs, charities, foundations, country clubs and music guilds. You name it; there is a board governing it – or trying to!

Despite the inherent worth of boards, for every one board that works well, there are scores of others that don’t. Why? Most board members have been thrust into a governing system so inherently flawed that its failure was predictable.

Boards usually fail because their “governing system” – or lack of it – has predetermined failure built-in. Most boards have no defined system of doing work. They do what they do because they have always done it. Little forethought has been given to what the board really is all about, what its job is and how it should do it. It is no wonder that so many boards struggle with role definition and true purpose in the challenge to lead complex organizations.

We see these recurring, performance-limiting frustrations that prevent coherent governance:

  1. Lack of clarity of purpose and focus: what is the organization expected to accomplish, for whom?
  2. Confused roles: what is the board’s role, the function that only the board can perform? How does the board free staff to do their jobs, but hold them accountable, without constantly reviewing, rehashing and redoing staff plans and processes?
  3. Internal preoccupation: boards that constantly fight, feeding off themselves – or off of their staffs – accomplishing little for their owners or clients.
  4. Misguided perception of what is important: is the board’s job to manage the manager, to be the watchdog? Or is it to establish clear outcomes and operational performance standards and rigorously monitor achievement?

Common roadblocks:

Agendas: Agendas drive board work. Historically, boards do the work called for by the agenda, which usually is formulated by the CEO and staff. Meetings are a series of board actions in response to administrative recommendations, usually about operation matters. In too many cases, that approval ritual is the extent of board “leadership”. Remember: He who controls the agenda controls the board.

In-fighting: In the final analysis, no board can be any better than the people who serve on it. If individuals cannot work effectively with each other, no governing system will overcome that inhibitor of good performance. Individuals must be willing to subordinate their own personal agendas and contribute to the common good of the organization and the people it serves. It requires integrity, focus and discipline, as well as time, communication and relationship building.

The joy of making low-level decisions: Boards dabble in the day-to-day affairs of the organization because these are the tangibles that readily can be addressed or “fixed.” This preoccupation with operational issues by boards is what leads to confused roles, charges of micro-managing, wasted time, splintered vision and frustration. Creating an organizational vision and identifying long-term benefits for the people being served take more work – and thoughtful leadership. It is the most important work a board can do. Unfortunately, most boards have given away the best part of their jobs!

There is a better way. Boards can control operational decisions without helping the CEO make them. Wise delegation of authority, with accompanying monitoring for compliance, allows the board to focus its time and energies on the more important issue of whether the organization is making a difference for the owners or clients it serves.

Our governance model, Coherent Governance®, empowers boards simultaneously to become more active and less intrusive.