Effective Boards Drive Change (Unfortunately most don't)

I’m ashamed to say, I’m a member of a bad board of directors. No one on the board is a bad person, but as a board we have failed in our duty to provide direction to the organization. The organization is the local chamber of commerce and we are out of money. We also have both staff members resigning and a hazy future.

Around three years ago, we were excited as we had a new brand and vision, had hired an executive director we felt great about, and had about $20,000 in reserves. What happened? Financially, we took a revenue cut as the city and county tourism appropriations to the chamber were both cut. Our expenses had increased as we gave the new executive director a substantial raise and had moved locations to be located at a higher traffic area. At the time, each decision seemed like a good one, but as our reserves have slowly dwindled away, the board did not step up and force adjustments and provide course correction.

This is one example, but all around me, I see boards that aren’t very effective. Many city councils and county commissioners in rural areas preserve the status quo and slowly see their population and tax revenue decline. Many school boards have individuals who come into their role with an agenda for or against people in the school. In rural areas, these are our biggest institutions and when they are led by people who don’t understand their role, it keeps our communities from moving forward.

Robert Greenleaf, author of Servant Leadership, saw the dangers of ineffective boards when he released his book in 1977. This month and next month, I want to point out some of his suggestions for trustees, councilmembers, commissioners, and directors as servants.

One challenge organizations face is there is operational necessity to be both dogmatic and open to change. Organizations need to have processes, routines, and operational guidance to keep the day to day work of the organization moving. Administrators and staff become very efficient at these processes. Administrators that appear to be successful usually are able to find ways for the organization to operate more efficiently in the organization’s dogma.

To succeed today, organizations need to continually evolve and be open to change. This is where a board steps in. In Servant Leadership, Greenlee writes:

“Trustees have a better chance than the administrator to be open to change. In fact, this is their role – to maintain openness to change, which their relative immunity from day-to-day operational pressures makes possible. Yet administrator and trustee are not sharply differentiated roles. In fact, they are a close mesh, in which the administrator should be mostly dogma and a little bit open to change, and the trustee should be a little bit dogma and mostly open to change. The two roles, closely linked and working in harmony, should take care of both today and tomorrow.”

In the boards I’ve reported to and been a part of, dogma is ruling the day. Most of the board meetings, administration presents their ideas and suggestions and the board accepts, without providing additional insight or challenging the suggestions of administrators. For example, I attended college board meetings for five years, or approximately 60 meetings. In those five years, the board approved every single voting issue the way administration wanted. In fact, all but three of the voting issues were unanimous. This means over five years, the individual votes of board members were around 657-3.

Our communities, counties, and schools are important institutions to our rural areas. In order for us to be successful, we need our boards to become active in pushing toward a better future. We need our board members to drive change in these organizations. If you are a part of one of these boards or councils, here is my challenge to you:

1.     Do your research – Investigate best practices in organizations similar to yours that are moving forward. Take the time to explore new possibilities for your organization outside of the monthly meeting.

2.     Do your homework – If you want to see an organization’s priorities, look at the budget. In most cities, counties, and schools, the budget is complicated, so most board members accept what administration tells them. Make sure you take time to look through and understand the budget. If you don’t study the money and make suggestions, you can’t drive change.

3.     Speak up – Our rural cities, counties, and schools need to move forward. They need your ideas. For the ideas to be considered, you need to share them. With the structure of meetings being set up by administrators and ran formally, it is easy to sit back and enjoy the free meal that might come with the meeting. You can’t do this. You’ve done your research and your homework so speak up, share your vision, challenge the status quo, and move the organization forward.

I need to be a better board member. Our local chamber has a blank slate and it is an opportunity to create a better organization than what we have had. In the past, our rural communities had leaders who moved our communities forward, who weren’t afraid to try new things, and who formed the communities we have come to love. It is urgent that our current board members step up to drive positive change in our local institutions to make us stronger.