Is Your Board Focused on How or Why?

I’ve had several conversations over the past week that reminded of a pivotal distinction between effective boards and ineffective ones – those that focus on “why” and those that focus on “how.” 

Answering the “why” question is a board’s essential function.  It is the direction-focusing, vision-setting, clarifying statement about what the organization stands for and does, and what the outcomes of its efforts will be. 

A board mired in answering the “how” question is a dysfunctional board.  It’s too busy micro-managing staff and processes to see the trends on the horizon that are reshaping its industry, or the needs of its younger members that are going unmet. 

Of course there are times when boards must get involved in management issues.  If the staff is being properly managed and directed, though, those times should be limited.  Look back at your board minutes over the past year.  Was the majority of your time spent on “why,” or did you spend too much time talking about “how?”

Likewise, there are also times when the chief staff executive is helping shape the vision.  The CSE is on the front lines of your organization every day so, by all means, include them in discussions about your vision and mission.  The ultimate responsibility here, however, belongs to the board.

Bottom line:  Hire the best chief executive you can find, be clear about your vision, mission and expected outcomes by answering the why question, and then let him or her answer the how question.


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