Move your board to the strategic level

In 2005, as I was beginning my consulting career, I picked up Governance as Leadership by Richard P. Chait, William P. Ryan, and Barbara E. Taylor. What I took away from their book was the message that boards need to do their work in three modes—what they described as “fiduciary,” “strategic,” and “generative.” The authors go on to describe how nonprofit boards can, and should, “reframe” their work within these modes and that when they work well in all three modes the board achieves “governance as leadership.”

As I started to lead board governance workshops, I wanted to convey what I had learned from Governance as Leadership, but I found myself struggling more with the labels they used than with the concepts themselves. So I began to describe the work of the board as being on three “levels” and came up with the following terms and brief definitions:

Monitoring – this is where the board does its work to keep the organization operating legally, managing in a financially responsible manner, and remaining true to its mission.

Strategic – here the board engages in strategic thinking to develop and support the work to achieve a shared vision for the organization.

Visionary – in my model, this is where boards ask the “what if” questions that become the catalyst for strategic plans and innovative thinking.

While I was reminded recently by some consulting colleagues that effective boards need to work at all three levels and know when to move in and out of those modes, I tell every workshop audience and every board governance client, “If you do nothing else, help your board spend less time monitoring and more time working at the strategic level.”

There are several essential board responsibilities wrapped-up in what I’ve labeled as “monitoring,” and if you fail to handle those responsibilities appropriately we may read about you and your organization in the newspaper. But keep in mind that people don’t join boards because they want to monitor. They join boards because they want to make a difference. They believe in the work of the organization—in the mission—and they want to do something meaningful to help. Unfortunately, too often all they get are meetings filled with monitoring and the occasional chance (maybe once a year at the board retreat) to talk about matters that are strategic and feel meaningful.

So while boards need to monitor, and do this competently, one of your jobs as board chair should be to make sure that they don’t stay stuck in this mode. While I plan to write in more detail about strategic planning in a future blog entry, I urge you to consider how you can get to the “strategic level” in your monthly board meetings. You don’t, and shouldn’t, wait until your next strategic planning retreat to consider and act upon issues of strategic importance.

As you and the chief executive consider the next board agenda, ask yourselves whether you have an issue or question of strategic importance to consider with the board. If your organization is guided by an up-to-date strategic plan, there should be plenty of opportunities to discuss as a board how you can support implementation of one or more of the elements of that plan.

If you struggle at all to identify issues of strategic importance, here are some questions for you and the chief executive to consider together:

  • What are the major strategic priorities for our organization this year? What about over the next three years?
  • What are the external and internal factors that will impact how we address our strategic priorities?
  • What issues will we need to grapple with as we pursue our strategic priorities? What obstacles will we need to overcome?
  • Are there opportunities that we should be considering now or soon? Are there potential opportunities coming down the road?
  • Are there any eventualities that we should be planning for now rather than later?

Your answers to questions like these should help you to identify those issues that could really benefit from the consideration and group thinking of your board. Your board, undoubtedly, has a wide range of talents, experience, and knowledge, and you should take advantage of it. The authors of Governance as Leadership would tell you that you need to involve your board in these conversations early-on, rather than after you think you have studied all of the options and are ready to present them with the one you think is best. The early conversations are much more interesting and meaningful, and the value the board can bring to them is much greater.

There is so much more I could say here about the importance of moving your board conversations to the strategic level, and you’ll find my emphasis on this rippling through almost everything that I write about board governance. Keep this in mind: board members are special people. While others are sitting at home watching “Dancing with the Stars,” they are at your board table doing important work for an organization about which they care deeply. Don’t they deserve to be doing work that engages their talents and which they find meaningful? Move your board to the strategic level.

For more board governance advice, explore the Starboard Leadership Consulting web site:, or contact Jeff Wahlstrom at (207) 992-4407.