It is important for board members to know when to wear and when to discard their board hats. Let’s consider two times that it’s important for board members to wear their board hats and one time when they should be taken off.
First, let’s consider board members in a mid-week board meeting. Most members are owners, senior executives, or managers of other organizations, and spend most of their business hours in that operational capacity. So when they rush from their management offices into a board meeting their minds may still be full of tactical thoughts. They may be wondering what the staff priorities are today, how they are going to revise the budget and compensate for the spending mistakes that have been made, how the organization’s goals are going to be achieved, or how current challenges are going to be overcome.
It’s critical that when these managers of other organizations walk into the board room they put on their board member hats and throw off their operational leader hats. It is important for them to remind themselves to leave tactical, operational, implementation decisions alone as long as they’re at this board meeting and, instead, focus on policy and high level direction.
The second thing that board members have to remember about their hats is which board’s hat they are wearing. This is often a challenge in national organizations where all or most of the board members may have been selected by regional groups within the organization to represent them at the national level.
Representing regional groups means sharing the perspective of the local constituency so that all the national board members are aware of diverse grass roots ideas and considerations when making a national decision. But when it comes time to vote, time to make a decision for the national organization, it’s important that board members are wearing the hat of the national organization.
To serve the interests of the national organization on whose board they sit, it is important that they make decisions based on what’s best nationally, not what’s best in their region. If their region is going to be hurt by option B but option B is going to be best for 90% of the organization, then the board member serves the national organization by voting with the national best interest in mind, by voting in favor of option B. This is hard to do but it is a key board responsibility.
Now let’s turn to when board members shouldn’t wear the board hat. If you’re sitting on the board of an organization and you happen to be talking to a staff person who asks you an operational question, it is important to say, “I can’t make a decision on that, it’s not my job as a board member to make operational decisions.” And if they say “but you’ve got experience in this, what’s your personal opinion”, board members need to be very careful.
You might say “my experience would suggest that such-and-such is one of the things to consider when making this decision.” Be really clear with yourself and with everyone else regarding your role in operational matters. Realize that most people you talk to about the organization, probably don’t think that you are sharing your personal opinion. They generally think of board members as board members, and consider what a board member says as a full board opinion or decision. They forget that having a seat on the board only gives one decision-making power during duly convened board meetings.
When your board members are consistent about wearing their board hats, not their management hats, about wearing the hat for this board and not some other organization, and about not wearing their board decision-making or direction- giving hats outside of duly convened board meetings, your board will be moving along the pathway to governance excellence.
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