What Are the Top 5 Characteristics of a Well-Functioning Board?

by Lyn McDonell

Some boards are better at their governance job than others.  How and in what ways?  I work with boards from across sectors – associations, health service provider organizations, universities, professional regulatory colleges, trade organizations -- and while all are different, the most successful boards across all these settings have some similar characteristics in the way they work.

Here is what I have observed about the best boards:

Knowledge of their role and attention to it:
The best boards really feel their edges! The directors at the table know what their role is and can articulate it.  There is usually documentation and orientation to back these up.  The leading boards are thoughtful about their role when they make decisions.

Constructive relationship with staff:
The term "constructive" means that the partnership between the board and staff is pointed towards “building” the organization.  It is positive and productive. Given the knowledge of their role, the best boards do not fawn over their executive director or CEO or overly criticize -- but know that they are in a partnership of complementary functions.  The senior staff feel comfortable raising issues with the board. There is mutual respect… and challenge!

Well-balanced agendas:
The boards that are leading the way are making sure their agendas are not 100% routine business but incorporate learning and dialogue to explore important issues – both internal and external to the organization.  This commitment is built in to the annual work plan of the Board and most, if not all, agendas.

Candour and Healthy Debate:
Boards that are too comfortable and self-satisfied run the risk of not asking tough questions of themselves and the organization.  There may be too much group-think.  I feel privileged when I observe authentic exchange because I know I am observing a board doing exactly what it was created to do – reconciling often disparate views and perspectives to collectively reach a more nuanced understanding of a decision and its impacts.  These boards don’t confuse treating people with respect and care – which they do -- with not being hard-nosed around the issues, making sure they are thoroughly debated.   Directors “lock horns in the meeting and then lock arms when they leave.”

Attention to organizational performance:
One of the jobs of a board is to provide the overall backbone and resolve of the organization to deliver on its promises to stakeholders.  Good boards hold all to account, including themselves.  They push in the right ways (good questions, encouragement, listening for obstacles and understanding when strategy needs to be adjusted, celebrating, asking for new targets - how far by when, etc.) and care about doing things in a quality way.  Good boards are passionate about the mission and curious about how well it is being performed.  They focus on this job of monitoring performance in a very deliberate way through scorecards and a good grasp of what demonstrates excellence and quality in their organization.

Every board is on a journey of improvement.  No board is perfect.  And there is always change.  Some people move off the board and new people join.  We routinely recommend organizations develop a governance philosophy statement or principles of governance to anchor good governance so that the board adheres to these sorts of commitments. It is the culture or “how we do things around here” that endures and that bar needs to be high.

~ by Lyn McDonell

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