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Oct 28, 2014

Still Figuring Out a Board Member’s Role: Try Copying a Parent

The issue of how to be a positive and effective board member continually comes up.  We have all seen the extremes:  the board that never asks questions and acts like cheerleaders versus the board that second guesses and micromanages everything.  Some advocate policy governance, but I have seen few boards that can get past the abstractions of policy governance and still effectively govern as fiduciaries.

I recently tried a new approach with a board which used an analogy to parenting to tease out the middle ground of  strategic governance as responsible fiduciaries.

This is what I think a good and supportive parent does:

  1. Lays out expectations
  2. Lays out the values of the “family”
  3. Keeps up on what the “family members” are doing
  4. Is supportive and encourages each member of the family to do his/her best
  5. Does not yell or intimidate (the staff, board, organization are not your enemy)

I think it also pretty completely captures what a good and supportive board member does. (Do NOT continue the analogy to suggest that nonprofit managers are children!)

Good parents make goals and expectations clear, and intervene only when those expectations are not met.  They are not “helicopter” parents that intervene rather than have their children deal with adversity. They certainly do not “do” the homework, but have ways to know (often from teachers) if the homework is not being done or the quality is slipping.

They establish the values that should guide choices, and then leave the choices to their children, with timely reminders about those values and their importance and relevance.

They find ways to keep up with everyone’s activities without hovering.  They are not inattentive or oblivious.  They do not assume the best without regard to actual deeds, but they seek to bring out the potential in each child and provide guidance and encouragement for the child to do his/her best.

They don’t demean, tell the children they are losers or incompetents, or punish.  As one kid once complained, “why don’t they tell me how to do it right rather than just tell me what I am doing wrong.”

Seems like we could substitute “board” for “parents” and “management” for “children”.  Not because managers are immature or wet behind the ears, but because these are good principles to get the best out of anyone.