Mention “board” to many leaders today, and their first thoughts are often negative, using words like – slow, bureaucratic, boring, sluggish to change, controlling and inflexible. While we have found this not to be true with many of the organizations we have served, it is important to remind board members that there has been a shift in how boards need to look and function.
In order to avoid becoming stagnate and ineffective, boards should adapt to the new environment of accelerated change and uncertainty. To do this, board members simply can apply the following two principles:
1. Be Flexible
This flexibility is first and foremost an attitude. Flexibility will provide greater adaptability when it comes time for making needed changes including board size, frequency of meetings, and new program initiatives. It is also especially applicable to the issue of control. As consultants, we have found that the top sources of ministry conflict are control, vision/direction, and leadership changes.
Excessive control/centralization may grow out of distrust and fear, resulting in slow decisions and decreasing creativity. Excessive decentralization may grow out of an unwillingness to submit to others, and it may lead to chaos and poor decisions. The following lists show what these two extremes look like depicted in a board setting.
- Fast decision making
- High creativity
- Relational power
- Ambiguity and chaos
- Lower accountability
- Quick to adapt & change
- Dispersed power & decisions
- Many leaders
- Leaders cultivate & encourage
- Low risk when leader transitions
- Slow decision making
- Low creativity
- Positional power
- Structure and control
- Higher accountability
- Slow to adapt and change
- Centralized power & decisions
- Few leaders
- Leaders direct and control
- Risk when leader transitions
2. Practice Good Communication and Decision Making
In their article “Who’s Got the D” which was published in Harvard Business Review, Neilson, Pasternack and Van Nuys make this sad but true statement about leadership decision-making.
Clarifying and articulating decision rights is often the first order of business in fixing a passive-aggressive organization where decisions have been made, unmade, overturned, and second-guessed so many times that no one really knows who truly decides what any more.
The graphic below demonstrates the range of approaches to board-staff roles.
Establishing good patterns of communication and decision-making is important for efficient and effective board leadership. When communicating with the director, it is helpful to know what is expected. For example, when the director brings an item to the board, both he and the board chair should know in advance if:
- This is only for informing the board – the decision resides with the director
- This is for input from the board – but the decision resides with the director
- This is for approval – the board has the authority to decide
If intentions are unclear, confusion and conflict can result easily and quickly. For example, if a director brings something to the board only for discussion or input but the board believes their input will be implemented, the board may feel the director did not listen. Or if the board members share some ideas with the director that they expect to be implemented, the director may feel these were only suggestions, not mandates. Clarity is easier on the front end in comparison to hurt feelings and distrust later on.
Building an effective board can be a tricky thing. There are many variables that you need to address. For help with making your board more effective, read the article "Building a Healthy and Effective Board" in our book GUIDE – Building the Team. Setting the Direction. Fulfilling the Mission.
Jay is the Executive Director of The Center and serves on the Senior Leadership Team at Calvary Church in Souderton. Jay brings experience in the areas of ministry assessment, leadership coaching, decision-making, and strategic questioning. Jay’s degrees include a B.S. in Bible, a M.Ed in Instructional Systems Design and a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior and Leadership.