Creating Board Holism in Board Communication

mark-g-wide-pullout-connections-2016-10Here are a few examples of recurring board processes:  nominations, recruiting and elections; GM evaluation; GM compensation; board self-evaluation; setting board priorities; agenda planning; officers roles and elections; code of conduct review and consideration of conduct issues; acting on reports from management; and responding to member or customer input. That doesn’t even take into account the infrequent board decisions related to purpose, expansion, debt or strategic alliances.  It’s worth thinking through how to work together to realize board holism with all decisions, such as those as described above.

Here are a few tips and ideas to consider:

  • Before “doing” a process, take time to talk about it first. It’s possible that some members of the board are new and haven’t been through it before, or that those who have been through the process before don’t remember the steps, purpose, or nuances of the process.
  • Review questions together about the process. For example: What agreements have been made about this process already? What do our policies say? Do we understand the process we are about to use? Does it make sense to us?

Who speaks the board’s voice?

Often the president or chair of the board is authorized to speak on behalf of the board. However, it is very common for directors, or officers, to be asked about board process, board decisions, board actions, or about management decisions or actions. The principle of board holism likely would also apply to newsletter articles written by directors or speaking engagements, formal and informal, in which a director is addressing board process, decisions or actions.

Given that there are a variety of ways the board’s voice might be expressed, even when the chair is the primary or delegated “voice,” it can be helpful to practice as a group how directors would express themselves regarding a process, decision or action.

  • Frame a question that could be asked by a member. Quick examples: What’s the board do, anyway? How does the board evaluate or compensate the GM? What’s the board’s role in elections? Why did you pick that location for the new store?
  • Then go around the room with each director answering the same question.
  • The point isn’t that everyone says the same words, but rather that the words each director chooses do express the shared understanding of all directors.

This practice can be especially useful following a deliberative process and board decision where all directors were not in agreement and yet the expectation is that all directors support the decision. Practicing answering questions out loud and hearing how others will answer the same question in the context of a board meeting, can help affirm alignment around decisions the board has made and show everyone what “speaking with one voice” looks like.

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By |October 5th, 2016|Categories: Articles, Connections, Teaming|Tags: |

One Comment

  1. Donald Kreis November 3, 2016 at 6:01 pm - Reply

    I am concerned that advice like this may foster a misleading impression of what “board holism” really means in the context of Policy Governance. As John Carver has framed the concept in his book (Boards That Make a Difference, 3d ed.), board holism is simply the notion that individual board members do not have the authority to speak on behalf of the board. Some have claimed, and Mark’s article here seems to imply, that this means individual board members may not express their individual opinions on matters that come before the board or, indeed, on questions that are within the board’s authority. In fact, I think board holism actually has the opposite effect — it frees up board members to talk freely with their constituents, and others (particularly co-op employees) about these matters because it is clear that such conversations are not in any way an assertion of the board’s authority.

    I readily agree that good board members support rather than undermine the work of their boards. But that doesn’t mean never expressing disagreement with board positions after they have been voted upon. It means being respectful about such disagreements and making clear that one will work to implement in good faith, and not undermine, decisions with which one disagrees. I well know what it feels like to have a board on which I am serving, including the board of a co-op, fail to adopt a position that I believed in strongly and argued for forcefully. In those circumstances, I tried to console myself with the idea that maybe the wisdom of the group is somehow superior to my individual wisdom in some way that is not apparent to me. It’s a habit of mind that, to me, is just an outgrowth in really believing in the kind of democracy that co-ops espouse but sometimes abandon when the going gets tough.

    The going gets tough when co-op members disagree with what the board and management are doing, when there are sharp differences of opinion among board members themselves, and when mistakes happen that cost co-ops money and goodwill. In those circumstances, we sacrifice our cooperative values and principles by silencing each other — in the name of “board holism” or otherwise.

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