Collective Wisdom: A board’s added value

Four people holding connecting puzzle pieces

Used with permission

The senior staff leader and the board chair both lead teams, but the staff leader has decision authority while the board chair does not. This crucial difference is the basis for another way the board adds value to the ministry.

Collective wisdom

Since the board chair cannot override the board or act without board authorization, every board decision must be a group decision. The practical consequence of this design is that collective wisdom is built right into the board’s fabric, resulting in five key benefits.

Fuller discussion

Since no one can unilaterally jump in and make a decision, and even a request to end discussion needs the group’s approval, no one on their own can force a premature vote. Discussion cannot be cut off until at least the majority feel that everything has been well researched and discussed.

It is more likely, then, that the board will have fuller deliberations than any individual would have on their own. One person may be sold on a particular decision that seems obvious and be ready to rush forward, succumbing to the temptation to save time and ‘just do it.’ But in a group situation, others may feel that alternatives have not yet been seriously explored and cause the board to slow down and go into deeper or broader analysis and debate. While the decision may take longer, the board’s collective wisdom will result in a better quality decision.

Synergy

If you want creativity or new thinking, there’s nothing like a group to make it happen. A comment by one person sparks an idea in another. Yet another person observes the line of thought and comes up with a fresh angle. Collective wisdom develops as people gain insights and “Aha’s!” from what others have said. A single jumping off point for discussion becomes multiple jumping off points when a group gets ahold of it.

Smoothing

Collective wisdom evens out the directors’ individual risk tolerances and personal preferences, including those of the chair (which might dictate the decision if the chair made the decision alone).

Each individual risk tolerance or personal preference will have less influence on the group’s decision than they would if a person decided alone. Each one can be identified and objectively tested for validity and reasonableness. Risks can be challenged, mitigated, or accepted by the group, when they might have been too much for one person to accept. Personal preferences or biases (present in all of us) will be uncovered and considered, thus arriving at a decision which is better thought out than would otherwise be the case.

Breadth of perspective

Staff are hired for their skill related to the ministry’s work, and over time they become encultured to the ministry’s way of seeing things. This is what employers want, but it also has its downside, because staff will gradually come to think more and more alike.

Directors, on the other hand, are selected because they represent a demographic (chosen by the board as significant to good governance at the particular ministry), and for their skill at governing. They should have a passion for the mission, of course, but they come from a wide variety of backgrounds.

In the case of the CCCC board, we have people representing church ministries, denominational ministries, and Christian agencies. The directors live anywhere from New Brunswick to British Columbia.

They also have a variety of professional and educational qualifications and experience. The staff can only afford to hire people with the particular qualifications the ministry’s work demands. The board is where you can assemble volunteers with a much broader set of qualifications that are beneficial to the ministry.

The directors should therefore have a very wide breadth of perspectives to add to the depth of perspective contributed by staff.

Boundary-spanning

Directors are in a unique position to help the ministry. Like staff, they are well-educated in the business of the ministry, but unlike staff, they are not immersed in it because they spend most of their time away from the day-to-day operations of the ministry. Since they span the organization’s boundaries, they can critique budgets, action plans and strategic plans from both external and internal perspectives.

Summary

Collective wisdom increases as board diversity increases. When board recruiting becomes a strategic process, there will be a consequent improvement in the quality of governance.

The downside of group decisions

Having to come to a group decision does have its limitations. Getting a decision from the board may mean that:

  • choices follow conventional wisdom
  • caution replaces daring
  • tinkering replaces radical re-invention.

To avoid this, the board needs to be aware of its own risk tolerances and compare those to the needs of the ministry. When confronted by options that it considers too bold or daring, the board needs to identify exactly what it is challenged by and then see how it could mitigate those risks. There are times when the board needs to move into uncomfortable degrees of risk if the organization is to move forward. A board with a low tolerance for risk will likely end up overseeing a shrinking and increasingly marginal ministry.

Preserving the collective benefits

The added value of collective wisdom disappears when the board allows the senior staff member or the chair to effectively run the board. There are at least four reasons why this situation may arise; one is the fault of the senior staff member, one the chair’s fault, and the other two are the board’s fault. The reasons are:

  • The executive may be a strong personality who dominates the board by stacking it with friends or intimidates it by sheer force of power. If the board is ever afraid to confront the executive, something is seriously wrong.
  • The chair may also be a strong personality, perhaps even the founder. A domineering chair is no better than a domineering director. This can be a very difficult situation to correct, but the board does need to take action. Perhaps a senior director or former director may be able to discuss the issue with the chair. Or the nominating committee should implement a process for doing annual review of the board and committee chairs. Anything that surfaces the issue would be good. Otherwise, the directors must take bold action at the first board meeting after the AGM and elect a new chair.
  • The board may be in awe of the executive or hold the person in such high respect that they defer to that person. This may happen because of the leader’s demonstrated success or because the directors are overwhelmed by the staff leader’s passion and enthusiasm.
  • It may be the board just isn’t doing its job. When this happens, don’t be surprised if the executive shows leadership. Leaders lead and are likely to step in when there is a leadership vacuum. The best senior leaders would, however, help the board recover its true role by: a) pointing out the problem to the board, and b) suggesting options for board development. Self-aware executives know it is in their best interest (and that of the ministry too) to have a high-functioning board.

The solution to all the scenarios is the same: the board needs to embrace its responsibilities, fully engage with decisions, educate itself, and maintain its independence from management while collaborating with it. Directors should go back to square one and learn to govern.

A note to senior staff leaders

You may be wondering how you can bring the advantages of collective wisdom to your staff. The answer is simple: adopt a collegial, team-based leadership style. There may be times when you make a decision alone, but as much as possible, lead by consensus with your senior team. Try it. You’ll love it!

Any thoughts?

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