Boardsmanship! Nine Principles

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Boardsmanship! Nine Principles

by James LaRue 

I think I've worked about every side of this now. I have worked for a Board in three capacities: as the Chief Executive Officer (a library director hired by, reporting to, and accountable solely to the Board), as the staff member working for the CEO (but presenting information to the Board), and as an independent contractor or consultant. And, I have worked on a Board as a member (sometimes with few responsibilities, sometimes as a committee member or chair), as an executive officer (Secretary, for instance), and as Board President. In that time, I've worked out some expectations of Board members. I sure wish someone had given all this to me at the beginning.

So in the hopes that this might do some good, I hereby offer “Nine Principles of Boardsmanship.”

  1. Governance Understand the difference between governance and management. The purpose of the Board is oversight—in other words, dealing with the big issues. Keep your eye on mission, on planning, on broad institutional strategy. Don't mess with day-to-day operational decisions.
  2. Focus Respect your fellow Board members’ time. Stay focused on the tasks before you. All of us have lives that matter to us. Unless you have good reasons not to (meaning “reasons that are vital to the organization and actually involve you”), stick to the agenda.
  3. Inform Bring all relevant information to the Board. The purpose of the Board is to make informed decisions, to provide intelligent organizational leadership. If you have data that matters, bring it forth. Don't sit on it in the hopes you'll get your way. That's intellectually sloppy and morally dishonest.
  4. Be Considerate Thoughtfully consider the opinions of others. Board deliberations do not consist of just waiting for the other person to finish so you can speak. They consist of open-minded evaluations of the ideas of your colleagues, and staff. This obligation extends to each issue and each person, not just to the issues or people you usually agree with.
  5. Voice Opinions Have your say. Argue passionately for your beliefs. Articulate your opinions as clearly, concisely, and forcefully as possible.
  6. Vote your Conscience Vote the way you believe, not what you think others might believe. Don't assume consensus simply because no one else voices an opinion. Perhaps others on the Board are waiting to see how the discussion comes out, or waiting for someone else to voice their dissatisfied but inchoate opinion. Take a stand!
  7. Represent the Board Represent the “Board decision” honestly. It could be that you voted your conscience—and were roundly defeated. So be it. Be clear about when you're speaking as yourself, and when your discussion represents the Board. You're entitled to your opinions, your doubts, and your free speech. But do your colleagues and your audience the courtesy of clearly identifying “who” is speaking: you as an individual or you as the Board representative. If your comments are spoken as a member of the Board, begin with a careful representation, without slander, of the decision of that body.
  8. Avoid Rehashes Move forward until new evidence urges a reconsideration. Don't keep revisiting things you've already decided. On the other hand, sometimes new evidence arises that compels you to think again. It could be that new evidence supports your dissenting opinion. Or it could be that it contradicts the majority opinion with which you agreed. Either way, new data should be examined without bias.
  9. Practice High Standards Build the organization by example. This is a big one. It speaks to a fundamental attitude. There are lots of pieces to this, but here are the main ones:
    • Presume innocence and the good intention of all parties.
    • Make each other look good: speak well of fellow Board members.
    • Build on each other's work.
    • Hold to the vision—spend your time working FOR the big organization goals (not against this or that).

And, just in case you don't hear this enough, thank you for caring enough about an organization to give it your time.

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