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Catalytic Board Change


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By Dr. Sid Webb

If you, as a CEO or board member, want to change your board, you have to first ask, “What needs to change, and why?” Ministry leaders should frequently ask the missional question: “Why?” By so doing they will infuse their organizations with kingdom outcome-oriented thinking, which is good stewardship. Anything that diminishes good stewardship is ultimately an assault on kingdom outcomes.

Board training is a cognitive concept and assumes that the gap is one of knowledge. I’ve found that much of my consulting work, however, is related not to training but to troubleshooting because the board problems are often ones of human choice and human behavior. It’s relatively easy to fill the knowledge gap. It’s much harder to fill the behavioral one because that means that your fellow humans have to be willing to play along and do their part. They have to be humble and teachable and collaborative. (So do you!).

People are composed of intellect, emotion, and will, and you can never fix a problem or produce lasting change if you’re not clear which of these domains is the issue. If lack of knowledge is the issue, conduct a class. If emotion and/or will are the issue, then get everybody in the same room, lock the door, and make sure you have a fire extinguisher nearby.

New information can certainly provoke their wills, such as when they receive the “Fiduciary Altar Call” or receive some dire risk management training. (Of course, in those situations your board may also be looking for the nearest door out of the boardroom!) Merely receiving new pieces of information will not transform a board. Transformation is a matter of the will, informed by understanding. Understanding comes from readiness. If you wish for your board to change, spend more time in prayer regarding readiness (i.e., the preparation of hearts and minds).

Dilemmas of time

Most ministry executives will spend at least 50 hours a week on the ministry, which means that in a given year they’ll spend some 2,500–3,000 hours advancing the cause. They are the experts on the organization.

It’s the governing board, though, that carries the legal, fiduciary responsibility for the corporation. Typically, they have other jobs and commitments and can devote only a small chunk of time to the ministry. It’s not unusual to hear that members invest only a couple of hours a month into their fiduciary service. That equates to some 25 hours per year. It’s what I describe in training as the 25/2,500 Dilemma: Each board member spends 1/100th of the amount of time on the ministry that the executive does.

Therein lies the conundrum. The leader with the expertise does not have ultimate fiduciary responsibility. The ones with the responsibility have precious little time to give. Our boards often end up being “out of sight, out of mind” as a result. This can be enormously frustrating to the CEO and dangerous in an age of increased repercussions for negligence.

Disorientation

As if it weren’t enough that board members are part-timers, there usually isn’t much preparation for the board member role. I’m astounded with how few boards have a formal orientation process or even bother to share a list of responsibilities and expectations to prospective members. Isn’t that poor stewardship? How much time does your board spend preparing and orienting new members? Proper orientation could end up producing the change you seek, naturally.

If you don’t help board members prepare, you’ll get what you get. They’ll fill the vacuum with whatever they think will work. Their previous committee experience (if any) may be dysfunctional. If they’re confused, they’ll begin to take their anger out in subtle ways. A board with no preparation is like a group of lost people stumbling around in the woods. In the worst-case scenario it looks like a scene from The Hunger Games.

Disconnects

Ministry leaders sometimes ask me to produce a manual for their boards, the thought being, “Put it in writing and you’ll fix our problems.” If we put it in writing, but your behavior doesn’t change, we’ve just given you a new problem, because you have proven yourselves to be negligent. If you’re not going to live it, don’t put it in writing.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have policies. What I am saying is that you should have the right set of documents for your situation, and that the board should have ownership in producing them and living them. Otherwise, your actions will not be in compliance with your stated course. You will have a cognitive disconnect that may inject frustration like a poison into the bloodstream of your organization.

What produces good behavior is not merely the presence of documents, but having leaders of character and competence who will reject passivity and demand performance and accountability from the boards on which they serve. What behaviors are we willing to both expect and accept? Choose your board members carefully, and opt for a smaller board if you must.

You know that the stakes are high. The shifting landscape in American society has put us all under the microscope. Your board members must take accountability seriously, operate at a strategic level, and monitor the organization’s programs and outcomes. And they must do so while not forgetting to monitor themselves.

Driving toward change

If you want to guide your board through change, you’re going to need several people joining to take up the cause without the situation turning into a civil war. And, you need a board chair with spine, who takes his/her position seriously, and is willing to speak the truth in love to the board.

Most people are not governance experts, so frame their service in language they can understand and apply easily. You have to translate the dry and dusty governance into significance. Ultimately, that’s the true kingdom outcome: your board service has resonance into eternity — long after your state corporation laws have burned in the Eschaton.

Ministry leaders and boards should recommit to “redeem their time” (Ephesians 5:16), and the quality of their stewardship.

Don’t waste people’s time.

Don’t meet unless you must.

Make it count.

The board should operate at the highest level of oversight and allow the executive to run the operations. The board should focus on such issues as, “What mission does this organization have? What measurables are appropriate to that mission?”

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Dr. Sid Webb is the founder of Sharper Focus LLC. Based out of Colorado Springs, he works with ministry leaders around the world to sharpen their impact. This is an excerpt from his article from the 2014 Spring edition of Outcomes Magazine.

 

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