Governing Well: A Board Chair Perspective

Governance, Great Leadership, Healthy |

governing well  a board chair perspective
Used with permission

By Tim Coles

This post will introduce you to CCCC’s Board Chair, Tim Coles, Executive Director of YFC Canada. I appreciate Tim providing a board chair’s perspective on good governance and governing well.

My Journey in Governance

What drew me originally to CCCC was an interview I did with John Pellowe for his book The Church at Work. That experience led to me joining CCCC as a board member. At the time, I’d worked with boards for 10 years in my role as an executive director but had never been on a board myself. Working with the CCCC board helped me understand how a board thinks and how the board can be a better companion for the CEO, and the CEO for the board.

I was very honoured to become chair of the CCCC board succeeding Barry Slauenwhite—a great person to follow. Now, as I lead YFC Canada and chair the CCCC board, I’m still learning about board governance and am applying that knowledge back to YFC and all of its 37 chapter boards. YFC Canada asks all its chapters to be members of CCCC. Frequently, I will point out resources to all our executive directors or board members and let them know it’s something important they need to read and be on top of.

CCCC has been answering people’s ministry questions for years, and out of that experience it has created an extensive Knowledge Base of information, making CCCC a one-stop shop for information on running a ministry well. Part of what they offer is guidance around governance.

Elements of Good Governance

Direction and Protection

The role of governance in a well-run, healthy Christian ministry is to direct and protect the organization. I remember Bob Andringa saying that 60% of policy should be driven by staff but approved by the board. At CCCC, it’s normal for the staff to contribute by developing 60-80% of the organization’s plans and policies that the board, quite often in committee, will then interact with before approving. This approach gives the CEO the added assurance of being on the right track. In return, the board acts as a brain trust and provides backing and authority covering for the organizational leader.

Mutual Trust and Respect

Good governance is the result of a partnership of mutual trust and respect between the board and CEO. And yet, the board needs to hold the CEO accountable. This tension is addressed well in the book Radical Candor by Kim Scott. The radical part is to love someone so well leading up to a moment when you must be candid with them that they are okay with your candor because they know it comes from a place of care. When the board is the CEO’s number-one cheerleader, the CEO will be receptive to candid feedback from the board. This environment of candor is really important.

The board chair needs to have radical candor with the board members as well, to be able to address issues as they come up, by taking the person aside privately and talking with them about the issue. Sometimes people don’t even realize their behaviour is causing a problem. Candid, loving feedback from the chair can open a constructive conversation around it.

The skill of relationship is important in all interactions. When board members interact intentionally and skillfully with staff, it removes the sense that they have a “big bad board” above them. CCCC is exemplary in creating relational connections between board members, as well as between board members and staff. Opportunities for interacting are built into the times that the board and staff connect for board meetings.

Contributors to Strong Governance

Clear Expectations

In addition to developing skills for critical roles such as the board chair, the governance committee, and the nominating committee, a key contributor to strong governance is clear orientation for new board members. Newcomers need to know what to expect, how to speak up, and the difference between governance and management.

Clear Responsibilities

It’s important for a board to not only know what to do but also to have healthy mechanisms in place to remind them of the parameters in which they function. An example of such a mechanism is the assignment of a Policy Governance Monitor at each board meeting who is tasked with completing a Board Meeting Evaluation Form (link is to the CCCC Member Knowledge Base) during the meeting. They then report at the end as to whether the board waded into what’s been delegated to management. Upon reflection, the board learns what not to do going forward.

The best tool for developing governance skills is a Board Policy Manual that shows whose responsibility it is to do which task and where the boundaries are. It’s important for both board and staff to know what to do and what not to do in their roles. Doing someone else’s job can make them feel irrelevant and threatened in their position, which is not healthy. CCCC’s Board Policy Manual is available to members in the Knowledge Base.

CCCC’s board governs through Policy Governance. The board policies include executive limitations that define what is not permitted, with the understanding that anything beyond those limitations is good and permissible. Developing clear executive limitations is key for a board to be able to govern with a clear standard that they hold their CEO to. Clarity around limits leaves a CEO with plenty of room to innovate, which can greatly benefit the CEO, the board, and the organization.

Meaningful Board Engagement

A Perspective to Consider

Most board members don’t spend their life thinking about the organization they’re governing, but their CEO does. The CEO invests everything he or she has into the organization, while board members come and go monthly, semi-monthly, or three or four times a year. Even though the board doesn’t play a role in the management function or have the expertise that management has, it does have a right to oversee the organization and inspect that management’s work is being done well.

Oversight and Direct Inspection

The board needs to know how to do oversight and direct inspection, asking the tough questions as needed to make sure the organization is being led appropriately. This can be done in a way that’s not threatening, and CCCC is ready to help members manage such governing complexities. All ministry boards should be engaged with CCCC for access to excellent governance resources, such as Serving as a Board Member and The Board’s Most Important Relationship, that help board members understand their role and learn how to connect meaningfully and intentionally with the CEO and the organization they’re working with.

Closing Thought

Having a board that governs well is a key component of a ministry’s success. Intentional board development will strengthen the board members’ ability to support the CEO and contribute to the organization in the way that only a board can. In addition to experiencing effective board meetings and healthy relationships, a strong board can be confident in knowing that the mission is being furthered from their investment of governing well.

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