The Four Horsemen of the (Board) Apocalypse
As I write this post, nearly thirty inches of snow have rendered millions of people homebound across the Mid-Atlantic region. Having passed hours of the weekend wandering the vast internet landscape, I’ve seen a number of catchy names for this epic storm, including “Snow-zilla,” “Snow-torious Jonas,” and “Snow-pocalypse II.” The last of these led me to Google the origin and meaning of the term, from which I learned about the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (Conquest, War, Famine, and Death). Though interpretations vary, these forces consistently represent and promise a fall or decline, with disastrous consequences. As I dig out the driveway and contemplate an eventual return to the BoardEffect office, I consider the work of boards and the many potentially destructive forces that haunt them. It strikes me that boards are plagued by their own forces of destruction, which can wreak havoc on their work. These common board dysfunctions could comprise the “Four Horsemen of the Board Apocalypse,” represented by Waste, Fear, Boredom, and Addiction, as follows:
1. WASTE (of Time and Resources)
Countless hours are spent preparing for board meetings, often inefficiently so. The board chair and CEO design the agenda, committee chairs prepare and submit reports, staff members organize and produce materials, and board directors review and analyze them. The whole process consumes more time than any one player realizes. In some organizations, meeting prep is someone’s full-time job; in others, it adds to the dreaded “other duties as assigned” for an already overworked staff member. In some cases the work-flow is quite refined; in others it reflects only thinly disguised chaos. In almost every case, the process results in wasted time and resources.
The greatest culprits — in terms of squandering resources – are the production of board materials and scheduling meetings, with the main victim of these time-wasters being organizational productivity. These common pain points are familiar to anyone who has ever attempted to schedule a committee meeting with several different people via email. The endless exchange among the group, trying to find times that work for all, can be very laborious. Inefficiencies in these and other areas direct staff away from more valuable tasks, while leaders’ “thinking time” is reduced by these administrative inefficiencies.
2. FEAR (of the Security Bogeyman)
Organizations spend hours developing materials that could get lost or, perhaps worse, land in the wrong hands. With the increasing number of alarming headlines about data breaches, security is a growing and valid concern among those involved in managing and distributing sensitive board documents. Organizations that still send printed materials or email sensitive documents increase their risk of being susceptible to offline and online threats.
And yet, as Franklin D. Roosevelt so famously warned, the most destructive response to any material threat is fear itself. The fear that comes with unmanaged risk can be paralyzing, but it’s irresponsible not to prepare today as we see endless examples of dire consequences. Today’s governance professionals must plan for the worst and be prepared to act quickly and decisively in concert with those plans.
3. BOREDOM (from Unengaging Meetings)
Nothing pushes boards toward the Apocalypse more steadily than boredom, which is the enemy of meeting attendance and board engagement. The beast of boredom is fed by meetings built around a series of lengthy reports. These take chunks of time, often fail to engage board members, and misuse opportunities for meaningful exchange. Boredom can leave a board mired in the weeds, confining it to tactical issues that are often administrative in nature.
Perhaps the surest cure for such “board-boredom” is when a board takes measures to operate in each of Richard Chait’s 3 modes of Governance: Fiduciary, Strategic, and Generative. Doing so requires participation by board members and demands interactive exchange among them. Doing so has proven to make meetings meaningful and helps directors feel they are adding value. Likewise, effective boards are able to pull out of the “tyranny of now” and operate in an intentional manner across each of three cycles of board activity: the Board Meeting Cycle, the Annual Board Cycle, and the Board Development Cycle. The reward for engaging in this way is both a well-rounded board agenda and an engaging set of interactive issues that fend off the boredom of unengaging meetings. It also has the benefit of staving off WASTE of time spent mired in less valuable areas (as highlighted above).
4. ADDICTION (to Paper)
The road to the Board Apocalypse is littered with barren forests. Large boards with frequent meeting schedules, complex committee structures, and significant regulatory pressures are particularly prolific producers and ravenous consumers of paper. Beyond its environmental challenges, paper-based distribution of board materials is expensive, slow, and cumbersome. When offered the opportunity to go paper-less, however, many administrators cite their board members’ innate love of paper – and resistance to technology — as insurmountable obstacles. While there certainly are zealots who refuse to give up their hard-copies, we’ve observed the myth of genuine addiction to paper to be quite overblown. Instead, we find that boards are eager to forgo paper. Much like people striving to give up habits that they know to be bad for their health, they only need a structured program and unwavering support to help get them over the hump. Whether eagerly or reluctantly, today’s board members are working to break their addiction to paper and seeking easy access to materials in many digital formats.
The Solution: Fending Off the Horsemen
In our work at BoardEffect, we have observed that the same Four Horsemen that torment boards in general are the same forces which stand in the way of their adopting board portal software (1. “We don’t have time,” 2. “Security is a concern,” 3. “Our meeting format wouldn’t support it, 4. “Our board members won’t give up paper.”). We certainly acknowledge these legitimate obstacles; and we also find that they represent a challenging paradox. Because, while there are no silver bullets in fighting off the Four Horsemen, we also know that a successful implementation of board portal software can be an invaluable asset in this exact battle.
Board portals can provide an easy-to-use platform for cutting out unnecessary steps and streamlining the preparation and distribution of board materials. According to Great Boards, this is one of the major benefits in investing in board portals. Likewise, board portal software offers scheduling capabilities that allow schedulers to send one message asking required participants to opt-in to the times that work best for them. This helps all parties to escape the vortex and increase efficiency / productivity.
Top board portals have invested significantly in managing threats and helping organizations to manage risks. At BoardEffect, security is one of our “guiding principles” which influences everything we do; and has been a key driver behind our having achieved compliance with HIPAA and other major regulations. BoardEffect, in particular, has built a platform build largely around giving great control to board administrators. The result of such control is that administrators may be fearless and confident, knowing exactly where their sensitive materials are and who can see them.
Admittedly, technology alone cannot make otherwise boring meetings exciting. However, a system that encourages governing bodies to focus beyond the inevitable “administrivia” of board-work helps immensely in this regard. The better board portals, and BoardEffect in particular, were designed with an appreciation for Chait’s work in mind; and they include functionality aimed at supporting the different modes of governance. Likewise, using a platform to manage each of the Three Board Cycles enables boards to give proper attention where – and when – it’s needed, not just where it’s easiest or most accessible. A board portal figuratively (and literally) invites board members into the work they agreed to do.
There are many ways to break an addiction to paper. One way is quite simply to stop enabling it (by ceasing to provide hard copies of board materials at meetings). Whereas this may seem harsh, we’ve seen that this is quite effective and far less jarring than one might fear (more on this in a future post). Even a more gradual process yields strong results. While technology isn’t always love at first sight, a positive digital experience carries a lot of weight among board directors. For instance, when a board member gets timely access to digitally distributed information, avoids lugging a heavy binder on an airplane, or retains easily accessible annotations to historical materials, his / her love affair with paper often begins to wane. Needless to say, having access to all the information they need via different devices is essential for busy board members, especially those who can’t be in multiple places at once.
In sum, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse wreak havoc for many boards. Acknowledging, understanding, and avoiding these forces yields huge benefits for all boards. And, while board portal technology itself is subject to these same counter-productive forces, it also can be a major ally in defeating them altogether.