Board Governance: 7 Things Your Board Can Do to Make Better Decisions

Posted by Matthew Thomas

matthew-thomas-2Recently, we wrote about how the sheer number of decisions leaders make suggests that good leaders must prioritize the decisions we make in order to spend the most energy on the most important decisions and not waste time and energy on minor decisions, which can be equally draining, but not nearly as potent toward achieving our goals. 

Nowhere is this more true than in a board governance setting. Many boards, committees, councils, and other deliberative governing bodies follow a rather standard meeting agenda order:

  • Minutes;
  • Reports (typically moving from the lowest order of precedence to the highest, e.g., minor committee to major committee to lesser officer to greater officer);
  • Old or Unfinished Business;
  • New Business; and 
  • Adjournment.

Unfortunately, what typically happens is that boards spend their freshest mental energy on the most mundane, and then have very little left for items of real importance that come later. This means that, without meaning to, many boards reduce their own capacity for doing their real work - leading and governing the organization on behalf of its constituency - by pushing the minor to the beginning and the major to the end. Their decision making process may be good, but they inadvertently create inverted priorities by putting the most mundane first.

Therefore, boards with good process policies create a different order of operations, and focus on specific overarching values, so that they can focus on the important when they have the freshest mental energy. Here are the seven things these boards do:

Seven_Actions_of_Successful_Boards1. They prepare for the meeting by sending out all the reports ahead of time, including the minutes. They assume everyone will read them before the meeting. Any corrections to the minutes (usually typos) can be taken care of here.

2. They minimize meeting time spent on items for which action is required but everyone consents by combining all the reports requiring no action and the minutes into a consent agenda at the beginning, so that only if there is an objection does any discussion happen. 

3. They prioritize the remaining reports so that their most significant decisions can come about with the freshest minds. 

4. They stick to a schedule by putting time limits on reporting, discussion and debate so that if the body is not ready to make a decision on one item, others may still receive a fair hearing. 

5. They set clear boundaries on their role, and that of staff or management, so they only focus on what their responsibility is, delegating the rest to others. 

6. They make decisions once, by making them clear and broad rather than technical and limited, which requires checking back in (repeatedly) after the fact and reopening issues. 

7. They maintain strategic perspective by adjourning with a sense of (or even an agenda for) what is next for the following meeting, or even several meetings down the road.

Boards that do these things find that they make better focused decisions in areas that are solely their responsibility. They can remain focused on honing vision and clarifiying priorities that propel their organization forward and keep them from getting too entangled in the web of non-essentials.




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Topics: board governance, board development, Matthew Thomas, group process