Part II: Channeling Strategic Collaboration: The Grease that Allows the Engine to Run

Over the last two decades, governance — the work performed by boards of directors – has become a more challenging endeavor than ever before.  Overwhelmingly, resources are scarcer, requiring organizations to do more with less.  Scandals in the corporate, public and nonprofit sectors have resulted in increased pressure and scrutiny on boards of directors from regulators and stakeholders alike.  In this environment, boards and staff are seeking ways to perform at a higher level by operating in an agile manner.  And yet, most of the prescriptive literature on board governance tends more toward the theoretical than the practical.

This leaves board members relatively unsupported in their quest to effect lasting change for their organizations, sometimes in environments that can actually discourage innovation.

The purpose of this three-part monthly series is to confront this important challenge head-on.   Its intent is to provide practical advice for how boards can combine their passion and expertise with governance-focused technology in order to deliver tangible results.  Each installment of the series will focus on a key thematic competency that is common among high-performing boards, and explore the meaning and importance of each.  The guide will also offer tips and tricks, important considerations, and pitfalls to avoid for boards seeking to enhance their governance practices and drive sustainable organizational change.  The series topics are:

  1. Enhancing Board Processes: Where the Rubber Meets the Road
  2. Channeling Strategic Collaboration: The Grease that Allows the Engine Run
  3. Fostering Circumspect Vision: Navigating Through the Windshield AND Rear-View

While pragmatic in nature, these governing practices are firmly supported by leading academic theory.   The themes echo the seminal work “Governance as Leadership” by Richard Chait, William Ryan, and Barbara Taylor, which holds that excellent boards must routinely operate in and fluidly transition among three distinct “modes” of governance, as follows:

  • Fiduciary Mode – the board is focused on financial and operational oversight – ensuring organizational compliance, and that tangible assets are being used appropriately.
  • Strategic Mode – the board helps create a winning strategy for the organization, monitors progress in executing that strategy, and serves as a strategic partner to management.
  • Generative Thinking Mode – the board fulfills its leadership role by deciding which issues deserve attention, what the issues mean for the organization, and how best to address.

We find this taxonomy to be imminently useful as a framework for how boards should strive to operate.  Like any ambitious diet or exercise regimen, however, this can prove to be more of an aspirational ideal than an attainable reality.  This is where technology, when implemented with prudence and strategic foresight, can be invaluable; and this field guide aims to assist in simplifying that process.

This series is informed by our experience at BoardEffect of having worked with over 1,200 organizations to leverage board management software in pursuit of enhanced operations and mission achievement.  It is our aspiration, however, that this series is vendor and technology agnostic, standing on its own merit as an aid to any organization with a governing body seeking to optimize its board as a strategic asset.

This is the second installment of a three-part series, “Leveraging Technology to Elevate Board Performance.”  In this segment, we examine how organizational collaboration fuels the journey toward mission achievement.  Before charting a path toward success, a board must pinpoint its “destination.”  Clarifying the mission establishes a point on the horizon toward which an organization strives. This is the quintessential first leg of the journey, but only the first.  In the strategic mode of governance, a board functions as compass that helps an organization set its bearings and determine the direction to follow toward its end-destination. Accordingly, the following installment seeks to help answer the question: how can organizations use technology to promote board collaboration and foster strategic leadership in support of an organization’s journey?

Board Workflows in the Strategic Mode:

  • Explanation: a central focus of the board is to ensure a winning (sustainable) strategy for the organization – driving movement toward mission achievement – and to serve as a strategic partner with senior management in ensuring its execution.
  • Optimal Situation: board members (along with senior management) actively engage in collaborating on the setting of strategy, ensuring resource alignment with strategic priorities, monitoring progress against stated goals, and advising leadership on potential adjustments as the landscape evolves.
  • Practical Reality: even when board members are engaged at a strategic level, they do not always have access to timely and actionable information needed in the planning process. When information is provided, it sometimes is unaccompanied by the necessary context and commentary that enables boards to grasp and codify its broadest implications.  Finally, the episodic meeting paradigm can inhibit fluid board collaboration that makes otherwise static information strategically valuable.
  • Useful Tools: operating in the strategic mode is all about a board’s ability to process and apply critical information in a dynamic environment. Board management software can help in this endeavor.  For example, various technology solutions aid in building consent agendas (to help a board pull out of the weeds and extend its line of sight during meetings), analyzing the current and ideal composition of a board, enabling board and CEO performance evaluations, and aligning the strategic plan with a range of initiatives from committee work to development activities.  Collaborations tools also allow boards to remain connected and productive beyond the boardroom.
  • Implementation Tips and Tricks: to get the most out of board management software, first go back to basics. In an offline mode, the board should explicitly consider the implications of the strategic plan in relation to every board and organizational activity. For instance, first revisit the function of board recruitment, then later leverage technology to facilitate the identified and related tasks. As another example, the organization should inventory and anticipate needs in board composition, based on the board’s strategic goals.  That will put the board in an advantageous position to successfully leverage software to design, document, automate, and analyze processes for attracting and on-boarding new volunteer leaders.  In each of these cases, be sure to leverage online collaboration tools to allow board members to share views and test assumptions on a fluid, real-time basis (which is otherwise can be difficult to foster outside of scheduled board meetings).
  • Pitfalls to Avoid: again, don’t assume the use of board management software will magically create best practices for your organization. Strategic planning is a team sport in continuous play.  Accordingly, a strategic plan should not be a static document or “shelf-ware” that gathers dust.   Be sure to intentionally build meeting agendas based around your strategic plan throughout the year.  This will ensure your plans are constantly at the forefront and part of the discussion as a consistent organizational priority.
  • Final Consideration: Be both intentional and innovative about how you leverage software that supports your board.  Simply paving the cart-path (automating old processes) won’t necessarily build a super-highway.  Sometimes re-thinking process is necessary to operate strategically.

A high-performing and collaborative board of directors can help an organization maintain sight of its destination and remain on the right route.  Mastery of the strategic mode of governance through enhanced collaboration advances the board’s movement toward mission achievement.  Board management software makes it easier for board members to work collaboratively and function collectively as the compass for their organization.

To download the full text PDF of the Field Guide, please click here.