Days before leading a first-time governance training session for a not-for-profit board, I learned that a trustee with a history of improper behavior had asked the CEO to fire an employee they were at odds with. Other trustees were troubled by their unrepentant peer’s unauthorized request, and hoped my training would reinforce the risk of not addressing the behavior.
During my training I covered two core trustee responsibilities referred to as the duties of care and loyalty. Often these duties are seen in legal terms such as the responsibilities to reveal relevant conflicts of interest, refer known opportunities for personal gain prior to using them, maintain confidentiality of insider information, and refrain from special requests or personal considerations (as that trustee had done).
My session defined care and loyalty so each trustee had a stronger sense of their collective role. Weeks later the troubled trustee resigned an the full board was able to move forward.
In past years care and loyalty might have been assumed because people stayed put for years. Today workers and volunteers readily and repeatedly change organizations. Besides financial and productivity impact, turnover and transition disrupt satisfaction, stability, drive, and trust which are at the heart of creating a loyal and caring community.
Limiting duties to compliance issues misses a critical opportunity to create a cultural and strategic advantage that is more easily enforceable within the board and with others. Here are three added approaches I have learned over decades of working with boards.
Show Your Vision
A primary responsibility of any board is shaping strategic direction through a clear mission, vision, and priorities. Much of my work with boards is about helping them plan and act on that direction. While sound strategic planning drives success, execution by people drives successful strategies.
Many boards fail to effectively explain their plans in a way that builds common commitment, care and loyalty for the cause. When vision and values are in conflict, people will act contrary to them. Great boards help stakeholders and constituents know why they exist, where they aspire to go, and what they stand for in going there.
Boards must communicate clearly and consistently so people can decide whether or not there is a good fit. Some will choose to leave. Most will stay. Those who understand and buy into the expressed vision and values will be attracted to it and repopulate the chosen culture.
Set the Example
According to a recent university study, patients are less likely to accept advice from overweight doctors, especially on healthy lifestyles. It is the same for an organization that says it values customers yet treats people poorly or arbitrarily.
People trust others who adhere to principles. They’ll even tolerate a few flaws if they see you are trying to act aligned with values. If a board expects to earn people’s care and loyalty, each trustee must be accountable and congruent with collective vision and values. That requires everyone to know and act consistent with both full board and individual trustee roles and responsibilities.
Since few trustees come fully prepared for effective board service, and with constant trustee turnover, it is essential for boards to periodically refresh themselves with comprehensive governance training and coaching facilitated by a qualified, objective expert who will help them walk the talk together.
Share the View
Years ago I was leading backpackers on a narrow trail through deep woods. I realized that while the lead person saw where we were headed, everyone else was watching the backpack ahead of them. To encourage everyone to keep going forward we rotated positions to give everyone opportunity to lead the pack and share the view ahead.
In every organization dedicated people do mundane jobs to fulfill the mission without seeing where they are going or experiencing the thrill of success. People want to feel informed, included, inspired and supported on the way to journey’s end.
Best boards invite volunteers, staff and other stakeholders to take on new responsibilities that advance strategic priorities, provide development and coaching so people have the will and skill to be successful, and cheerlead and celebrate contributions as well as goal completion. By sharing the view to success they show they care, which encourages others to care.
When your board goes beyond legal loyalty by showing its vision, setting the example and sharing the view, they create a more motivated, capable and caring culture that drives success.
Joe Marzano is president and CEO of Martius Group LLC, a provider of strategic planning, change consulting and executive coaching solutions to private companies and nonprofits. A seasoned CEO and engaging public speaker on board governance and organizational performance, Joe has served as director for over a dozen boards and has trained, coached and advised corporate boards and C-suite teams across the United States. Joe can be reached at J.firstname.lastname@example.org.