Participating responsibly means to do your homework, come prepared to work
(sometimes the work is to listen), agree and disagree as your values dictate,
and accept the group decision as legitimate even if not- not in your opinion-
correct. It is not acceptable, for example, to have opinions but not express
Remember your identity is with the ownership, not the staff.
Identifying closely with your staff will be inviting in that you may be in
conversation with them about issues more than you will be with the ownership.
You will come to use staff’s abbreviations and short-hand language. Be careful
that you don’t become more connected with staff than with those who own the
organization. Be a microcosm of your ownership, not a shadow of the staff.
Represent the ownership, not a single constituency. You will
understand and personally identify with one or more constituencies more than
others. That provincial streak is natural in everyone, but your civic
trusteeship obligation is to rise above it. If you are a teacher, you are not on
the board to represent teachers. If you are a private businessperson, you are
not there to represent that interest. You are a board member for the broad
ownership. There is no way that the board can be big enough to have a
spokesperson for every legitimate interest, so in a moral sense you must stand
for them all. Think of yourself as being from a constituency, but not
Be responsible for group behavior and productivity. While
doing your own job as a single board member is important, it does not complete
your responsibility. You must shoulder the potentially unfamiliar burden of
being responsible for the group. That is, if you are a part of a group that
doesn’t get its job done, that meddles in administration, or that breaks its
own rules, you are culpable.
Be a proactive board member. You are not a board member to
hear reports. You are a board member to make governance decisions. Listening
while staff or committees recount what they have been busy doing is boring and
unnecessary. Of course, it is sometimes important to get data through reports,
but don’t let that cast you in a passive role. Even when you are receiving
education, do so as an active participant, searching doggedly for wisdom that
will enable good board decisions. Make "show and tell" board meetings passй.
Honor divergent opinions without being intimidated by them.
You are obligated to register your honest opinion on issues the board takes up,
but other board members are obligated to speak up as well. Encourage your
colleagues to express their opinions without allowing your own to be submerged
by louder or more insistent comrades. You are of little use to the process if
full expression of your ideas can be held hostage by a louder member.
Use your special expertise to inform your colleagues’ wisdom.
If you work in accounting, law, construction, or another skilled field, be
careful not to take your colleagues off the hook with respect to board decisions
about such matters. To illustrate, an accountant board member shouldn’t assume
personal responsibility for assuring fiscal soundness. But it is all right for
him or her to help board members understand what fiscal health to watch
carefully. With that knowledge, the board can pool its human values about risk,
brinkmanship, overextension, and so forth in the creation of fiscal policies. In
other words, use your special understanding to inform the board’s wisdom, but
never to substitute for it.
Orient to the whole, not the parts. Train yourself to
examine, question, and define the big pictures. Even if your expertise and
comfort lie in some subpart of the organization challenge, the subpart is not
your job as a board member. You may offer your individual expertise to the CEO,
should he or she wish to use it. But in such a role, accept that you are being a
volunteer consultant and leave your board member hat at home.
Think upward ad outward more than downward and inward. There
will be great temptation to focus on what goes on with management and staff
instead of what difference the organization should make in the larger world. The
latter is a daunting task for which no one feels really qualified, yet it is the
board member’s job to tackle it.
Tolerate issues that cannot be quickly settled. Shorter-term,
more concrete matters can give you a feeling of completion, but are likely to
involve you in the wrong issues. If you must deal with such matters, resign from
the board and apply for a staff position.
Don’t tolerate putting off the big issues forever. The
really big issues will often be too intimidating for you to reach a solution
comfortably. Yet in most cases, the decision is being made anyway by default.
Board inaction itself is a decision. Don’t tolerate the making of big
decisions by the timid action of not making them.
Support the board’s final choice. No matter which way you
voted, you are obligated to support the board’s choice. This obligation doesn’t
mean you must pretend to agree with that choice; you may certainly maintain the
integrity of your dissent even after the vote. What you must support is the
legitimacy of the choice that you still don’t agree with. For example, you
will support without reservation that the CEO must follow the formal board
decision, not yours.
Don’t mistake form for substance. Don’t confuse having a
public relations committee with having good public relations. Don’t confuse
having financial reports as having sound finances. Don’t confuse having a
token constituent board member with having sufficient input. Traditional
governance has often defined responsible behavior procedurally (do this, review
that, follow this set of steps) instead of substantively, so beware of the trap.
Obsess about ends. Keep the conversation about benefits,
beneficiaries, and costs of the benefits alive at all times. Converse with
staff, colleague board members, and the public about these matters. Ask
questions, consider options, and otherwise fill most of your trustee
consciousness with issues of ends.
Don’t expect agendas to be built on your interests. The
board’s agenda is a product of careful crafting of the board’s job, not a
laundry list of trustee interests. Remember, too, that you are not on the board
to help the staff with your special expertise, but to govern. No matter how well
you can do a staff job, as a board member you are not there to do it or even to
advise on it. If you wish to offer your help as an individual- apart from your
trustee duties- do so, but take great care that all parties know you are not
acting as a board member. The staff’s using you as an adviser or helper must
remain a staff prerogative rather than yours.
The organization is not there for you. Being an owner
representative is very different from seeing the organization as your personal
possession. Remember that the organization does not exist to satisfy board
members’ needs to feel useful, self-actualized, involved, or entertained. Of
course, it is fine to feel these things and perfectly acceptable to seek
whatever fulfillment governance can give you. But the board job must be designed
foremost around the right of the ownership to be faithfully served in the
determination of what the organization should accomplish.
Squelch your individual points of view during monitoring.
Your own values count when the board is creating policies. But when the CEO’s
performance is monitored, you must refer only to the criteria the board decided,
not what your opinion was about those criteria. In other words, the CEO must be
held accountable to the board’s decisions and in fairness cannot be judged
against your opinion. You should present any opinion you mat have about amending
the policies, of course, but not so as to contaminate the monitoring process.
Support the chair in board discipline. Although the board as
a whole is responsible for its own discipline, it will have charged the chair
with a special role in the group’s confronting its own process. Don’t make
the chair’s job harder, rather ask what you can do to make it easier.
* From John Carver’s – Boards That
Make a Difference
and included in NSSA Board Orientations