The other day I was asked by an eager board member to lay out the process for how the group can get stronger. I have worked with them on and off for years and have some familiarity with their challenges. My answer actually surprised me, well, the 4th Step did, and I want to share the surprise with you.
The first three steps of my prescription comprise the standard remedy for most boards having significant difficulties.
Step 1: The group needed to repair its relationships. Distrust was casting a negative pall over their meetings, creating disagreements when there weren’t any of substance. The result was meetings they described as taking three times longer than they should. In short, everyone was discouraged, and the group was stalled at a low level of performance. I gave them my “magic sauce” for repairing relationships and then went on to step 2.
Step 2: The group needed to put in place the three basic tools of effective governance: a strategic plan to set direction for the organization and evaluate progress, a set of policies to give authority and guidance to the CEO, and an instrument panel (Balanced Scorecard) to monitor key measures of organizational success.
Step 3: The group needed to work on meeting mechanics: Roberts Rules of Order, meeting packets, format of action items for consideration, effective chairing, use of committees, use of Consent Agenda, etc. Improved mechanics allows a group to both feel and be productive.
“Isn’t the topic here micro-management?”, you ask. I’ll get there, but first, a bit of theory.
Knowledge is power
What discourages many of the boards I have worked with is that they don’t feel in control. They feel as if they are simply blessing the plans and proposed action items of management with barely enough understanding to know how to vote. Because they feel out of control, i.e. it is the CEO who is really in control, they feel they are not doing their job, or at least not doing it well. And in large measure, they are right.
In an attempt to get into control, boards engage in micro-management (Micro-management is defined as a pattern of interference of a managing authority with people, projects, or initiatives that impedes progress without adding any value). Unable to control the big picture because they are missing the tools I outlined in Step 2 above, boards engage in approving details, thus needlessly slowing the organization down while still not truly being in control. The CEO in this instance is controlling the big picture direction of the organization, and the board is engaged in simply consenting to what has already occurred through approval of reports.
As I thought about this, I was reminded of the great book from the ’60’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The book describes a journey in which the author learns that if you do not have enough knowledge of your machine to maintain and fix it, then the machine rules or controls you, and your spirit is negatively impacted. The problem of modern man, in the author’s view, is that we are now dependent on machines we don’t understand.
My thought was that this lack of knowledge, and thus control, was a major contributor to the dispirited state of the board before me. They were not in control of the business because they did not understand the business, i.e. keys to success, their competitive position, vital processes, risks, inherent problems, etc. Which brought me to Step 4
Step 4: Just as the motorcycle owner must take apart his machine to gain familiarity and ultimately control over it, a board must “play in the dirt” to understand their organization. You must come to understand the business you are in, what the key drivers of success are, what the areas of risk are, make some mistakes and learn in order to gain the knowledge to be in control. This is not micro-management, because you are not interfering in the work, rather, you are simply striving to understand it.
However, you may well get push back from your CEO as getting to know the business takes time and may slow down decision-making. And, frankly, it may well be perceived as micro-management. But, unless you slow down and come to understand the business, you will never be able to go fast. That is, when you are asked to make a key strategic decision, you won’t know enough to feel confident in your decision and will likely delay the decision, potentially losing the competitive advantage that might be available from such a change.
Gaining the knowledge
How to get knowledge? Schedule site trips to look over your operations and to be briefed by the managers close to the work. Ask them what your organization is doing better than anyone else and what competitors are doing better than you are. Get a sense for whether there is a strategy to outperform the competition, what it will take to execute on it, what the challenges are in gaining prominence in your market or in improving services to those you serve. Get the dirt of the business under your fingernails.
My prescription for this board reminds me of the now famous line from Toyota, “we don’t go fast, but we don’t go back”. Meaning their planning and process design is flawless and thus, so is their execution.
In my experience, the big hurdle board members must overcome is fear of asking a question that will reveal that they don’t know something they should. Overcome this by realizing that staff love to be asked questions, and that their biggest fear is that you will make a decision without knowing what you need to know. So, ask every question that pops into your head, even if you have asked it before and forgotten the answer.
Need some help? I would be happy to discuss any of the steps above, share the “magic sauce” to repair relationships, or help your board outline a plan to get back into control. Drop me an e-mail, and we can start the conversation. For more on micro-management, I encourage you to read our library article “Micromanagement and How To Correct It“.