Learning to Be a Board
by Hildy Gottlieb

© ReSolve, Inc. 2008

Q: How does your board learn to be a board?

A: Most board members receive little, if any, education on how to "be" a board.

We are not talking here about learning how to “do” the things boards are supposed to do. That is something boards learn quite a bit about. They learn about their programs. They attend workshops on how to fulfill their various legal roles. They check practical articles online (like the ones in our library, which are accessed by boards all the time). There is certainly no dearth of learning in how to “do” the work of a board.

But where do board members learn what it means to “be” a board? Mostly, they learn from other boards they have been on. They learn from their fellow board members, who learned from other boards THEY have been on. And because most of that handed-down knowledge focuses on what boards should do, there is virtually nowhere boards can learn what it means to "be" a board.

“Being” a Board - Not as Easy as It Seems
In our real lives, we do not “govern.” In our real lives, we “do.” What experience do board members have to fall back on, then, when it comes to being the ones to govern towards community change? Who teaches them how to “be” such leaders?

Also in our real lives, we do not supervise employees collectively. If someone is the “boss” at work, she does not have ten other co-bosses alongside her, all supervising one employee. She is the boss alone. She makes decisions alone. She is accountable for those decisions alone.

And then there is all the stuff that comes with being a board that is becoming more Community-Driven in its governance - aiming your board’s decisions and actions at the visionary change you intend to create in your community. There is certainly not decades of guidance to fall back on for being in that role!

The problem boards face, then, is not about “knowing what to do.” The problem is first that they do not know how to “be” a board.

Learning to "Be" a Board - Together
The most effective way to learn a new way of being is to practice with others who are learning as well. Boards already have that supportive learning community - they have each other! Taking time for reflection and learning together does not require adding another item to your agenda. What it requires instead is that you infuse all your discussions with that spirit of reflection and learning.

At various points throughout your board’s meeting, have your board chair ask:

  • What was interesting about that discussion? What stood out for you?
  • Did we use our values to guide our work? Our vision? If not, why not? And if not, what did we base our decisions on? Is that how we want decisions to be made in the future?
  • Did we engage everyone who would be affected by the decision? Were they involved in advising us about this decision? If not, why not?
  • Are there possibilities for making a difference that we ignored?
  • Did we have enough information to make the decisions we made?
  • Whose interests are we serving in our decisions?

Embed these and a thousand more questions like them into your board discussions. Give your board the opportunity to learn what it is to “be” a board that leads the charge towards the future of your community.

From there, the next step is your own:
Are you taking enough time to reflect in your own life? And what could you accomplish if you stopped every once in a while, and asked yourself those questions?

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