Building a “One Voice” Board of Directors (Part 3?)

Randy’s back this week with a third installment in the Strategic Planning series. This week, he’s tackling the topic of the impact a GOOD Board of Directors can have on an organization. If you’re on a board, or work with a board, or even want to be on a board — this is the podcast for you.


Podcast Transcript


Welcome to the Evolutionaries podcast. I’m Randy Harrington. Carmen Voilleque is out doing amazing work with clients. And uh, we’re going to jump in to a discussion right now that gets to, what does it look like when board members do their job brilliantly? I have the great blessing of working with amazing boards of directors all over the country. And I have tremendous respect for anybody who is willing to go and put themselves out there and take on the enormous responsibility of being a board member.

There are, of course, all kinds of flavors of boards. We work with hospital boards and foundation boards and nonprofit boards and bank boards and credit union boards and so forth and they’re all a little bit different. So, in this conversation, I’m gonna be making some generalizations and I would ask that you, uh, adapt appropriately, based on the board that you are dealing with.

So, well, I’ll just go ahead and say it. If you’re not on a board or you don’t wanna be on a board, or you’ve never been in a board room, then this is not the podcast for you, you know, go, go listen to the new Kanye album or something. I think that’ll be better uh, than, than, than wasting your time with this. But if you deal with boards at all, uh, hang in there because uh, it’s getting to be strange out there in the land of board world.

And a lot of that is because, uh, there is so much more pressure on boards as a result of the new federal regulations and just the, the compression of the market place, the fiduciary responsibilities of board members have increased significantly and the complexity of their job has increased significantly. And, uh, the results of that is not always positive uh, with boards. Um, they may or may not react well to the increase in complexity that they’re, that they’re staring down.

So what I’m gonna talk about right now are three things that I see that show up that are indicative of successfully run successful boards. Uh, the very first thing that I would suggest [00:02:00] is that successful boards do manage their conversations against an agenda or an editorial calendar. Now, what that means is, is that, when the board comes in to a meeting, they have, in their mind and in their hands, information that is gonna be relevant for the discussion that day. They know what their discussion is gonna be about. They’re not being blindsided and they have had an opportunity to prepare.

Now, there’ve been some interesting studies in communication journals that suggest that the key thing in board preparation before a meeting is that 100% of the board members read 100% of the material that they get. Now if you’re on a board or you know a board, you know that that’s very unlikely to occur. The chances are, most people are reading their packet in the parking lot before they come in the building. Um, they may have looked at it late the night before. But very few board members really give time and attention to pre-reading the way that they should.

And as a result, the scholarly studies show that the halfway-prepared board is actually in worse condition than a board who walks in without any expectations for a meeting and is given everything they need to know right at the top of the meeting.

So, so a couple of quick tips here. Don’t overload your board with crap two, three weeks prior to the meeting. There’s a good chance what you’re gonna do is actually build in imbalances because there’s gonna be two or three board members who are, like, compulsive freaks who read everything. And then there’s gonna be two or three board members who don’t scan it at all. And the result is, you’re gonna have the strong discussion imbalance when you come in there.

Best thing you can do is put fairly open agendas in place and put reasonable amounts of reading in front of your board to help tee them up, even more importantly, don’t just give the board blanket information. Instead, say, “We’re going to be looking at three options [00:04:00] for our growth and expansion uh, strategic initiative uh, between now and the end of the year.” That kind of framing that says, uh, “Okay, there’s gonna be three options. Okay, it leads to our strategic initiative on growth and it’s between now and the end of the year, okay, I get it.”

Anything you can do that gives those framing structural elements to the boards is going to be very helpful for the quality of deliberation that you get. So, number one thing great boards are doing, they’re working off of an agenda and editorial calendar. They know what to expect when they walk in the room. They have been given reasonable prep, and that reasonable prep allows them to know that they’re gonna be making some specific choices when they sit down for the discussion.

The next thing I see in terms of great boards is in the actual discussions that they involve themselves in, they are collaborative, even and especially, when there’s disagreement. For example, you might hear somebody say, “Well, I really feel like we ought not be spending the money right now for this new growth initiative because the market is so uncertain.” And then the next board member says, “I respect the need for us to be conservative because of uncertainty in the market, and I agree with you on that position. But I think that we’re going to be foolish if we don’t take this opportunity to move forward with this new, new great thing that we can go do.”

In other words, the two people are actually communicating in regard to each other. Great boards don’t just spout their opinions one off, one off, one off, but they’re trying to make connections. They’re trying to build a consensus in the board. One-voice board guidance is critical, at the end of the day, if you don’t have that, you have just screwed up your CEO. You’ve screwed up the senior team, they leave the board meeting going, “Well now we don’t know what the hell to do. We got 16 different opinions from the board and we have no [00:06:00] single voice approach.”

So, great boards work very hard in discussion, not only to get their individual opinions on the table, but to actually craft a unified single-voice framework that will actually empower the CEO to make decisions with real confidence and to move more quickly. So great boards who are using clear agendas, they’re prepared well and as they deliberate their work and to make connections, to create a single-voice position.

And the last thing that I find in great board meetings is that the board meeting happens in the board meeting. What drives me just crazy is when I’ll be working at a board session and I can tell 30, 40, 50% of the board members, arms are crossed, scowling a little bit, maybe they’re not saying anything or they’re grunting. Maybe they’re looking completely disinterested and then we take a break.

And then during the break, board members cluster in groups of twos or threes and then begin discussing the stuff that they should have been discussing in the board meeting. These kinds of water cooler, offline meetings are absolutely dangerous and they break down any potential for the kinds of trust and deliberation that really makes for a great board.

You have to have the courage to have these conversations around the board table, the conversations that are happening offline and in the parking lot are just damaging to the overall deliberative quality of your strategic planning process. So, it’s one of those things that you have to police yourself.

While you’re over there, maybe refilling your coffee cup and another board member, maybe well-intended, comes over to you and goes,” Well I don’t know about that last proposal, gee, I’m not sure that was such a great idea.” Then your response needs to be to look at that board member and go, “You know, I think that’s a really important point and you should bring it up as soon as we get back to the table.” So you’re constantly deflecting that, that errant board member [00:08:00] to bring their conversation right back to the table. So those are the three big things for this conversation about, “What does it mean to be a great board member?”

It means you’re going in prepared. It means that you are working through the decision points that you’ve been given by your senior team or that you’ve developed as a board. You’re participating. You’re getting your opinion on the table. But most importantly, you’re trying to thread it together with the other points of view that are either in agreement or disagreement with you, so that the board can have a real one-voice guidance, presence for the senior team. And then finally, there’s a discipline that when we are meeting and we’re in an official meeting, that’s where the deliberation needs to happen, not over by the coffee pot, right?

So, with those three basic ideas in mind, I believe you can really enhance the overall quality of the board. And I can’t stress enough how as simple as those things sound, they are the things that end up making a difference in the quality of deliberation that constitutes either wind in the sails of your senior team or, you know, a hole in the boat and a slow-sinking vessel. It’s that significant.

So take that advice and, uh, and run with it. And we hope you’ve enjoyed this podcast. Uh, listen to it and discuss it and by all means, we always wanna hear from you. Let us know what you think. Uh, check us out, uh, at the Evolutionaries website, Evolutionaries Facebook page. We’ll see you next time on the Evolutionaries podcast.

About Randy Harrington, Ph.D.

CEO of Extreme Arts and Sciences.
Co-Founder of Strategic Arts and Sciences.

Harrington completed his doctorate in Communication at the University of Oregon in 1992 and immediately began working as a consultant. Over the past 20 years Harrington has conducted hundreds of planning sessions and developed a wide range of change management strategies for companies large and small. His clients include companies like Microsoft, Adobe, hospitals, government agencies, and financial institutions all over the country. Harrington is also a sought after keynote speaker with a reputation for high energy provocative presentations. He is currently the CEO of Extreme Arts and Sciences and a partner with Strategic Arts and Sciences.