Strategic Thinking Boards: Ten Essentials

Creating a strategic thinking board whose default mode of thinking is strategic and maintaining such a culture requires intentionality. There are many techniques  that can be employed to ensure a strategic thinking board. However, here are ten essentials:

Ten Essentials for Strategic Thinking Board

  1. Strategic plan that has measurable outcomes/objectives. Having such a plan serves two purposes. Engaging the board in the development of the plan creates multiple strategic thinking experiences, thereby aiding the board in embracing strategic thinking as its default mode of thinking. Including quantifiable objectives also helps keep the board focused on outcomes, and not tactics, during future board dialogue. Such a plan can also provide a framework for board discussion at board meetings.
  2. Strategic board candidate selection process. Getting the right people on the bus is critical. When identifying candidates, selection committees are advised to undertake a gap analysis. In doing so, consider where the organization is going strategically, board member skills / backgrounds needed to get there, and the skill set of the sitting board members. Likewise, candidates should be evaluated against a list of desired attributes, which hopefully, include intellectual curiosity and strategic thinking ability. Finally, overall board diversity is a critical consideration.
  3. Comprehensive board orientation program. A sound board member orientation program is a process, not an event. Begin with identifying the learning objectives for your orientation program and then identify all the possible touch points where learning can take place. An orientation program is an opportunity to reinforce the roles, responsibilities and missions of governance level committees that are presumably designed around governing duties. Remember to include current board members in the actual orientation session along with the new members.
  4. Ongoing board training. Like a sound orientation program, board training needs to be more than a once a year event. Ideally, in addition to an annual board training session, boards should engage in some form of board development at every board meeting.
  5. Strategic agenda. If you want to change an organization (or board), simply change the agenda. The main objectives are to engage the board in strategic dialogue about big issues at the beginning of the meeting and minimize the time the board spends talking about the past by placing committee and other reports in a consent agenda. Open the meeting with strategic dialogue about a big important issue with potential strategic impact on the organization. Next, deal with strategic action items, followed by oversight issues geared to monitoring performance. The last item on the agenda should be the consent agenda that contains the written reports.
  6. Chairperson leadership training. Ensuring the chairperson has the knowledge and skills to lead and maintain the board’s strategic focus is pivotal. Beyond typical leadership training, it is imperative that chairpersons are equipped to appropriately facilitate/lead board meetings. In addition, a chairperson should understand the reasoning behind using a “strategic agenda” and fully understand the board’s role vis-á-vis the CEO’s role. Of course, the training should also include a comprehensive review of the chairperson’s roles and responsibilities.
  7. Chairperson meeting preparation. It is customary for a CEO to hold a prep call with the chairperson to review the agenda prior to board meetings. However, all to often these calls are limited to discussions about agenda item outcomes, substantive background on the items, and talking points the chairperson can use to introduce the items. These calls are excellent opportunities for the chairperson and CEO to discuss specific techniques that can be used to keep the board focused at a strategic level on each agenda item and identify boardroom scenarios that might result in the board becoming distracted with tactical issues, along with mechanisms for the chair to effectively deal with such distractions. Finally, in addition to developing talking points, it is important to develop and review strategically oriented questions that the chair can ask the board in an effort to guide the dialogue at a strategic level.
  8. Clearly defined roles and responsibilities vis-á-vis staff. Often, when a board veers from strategic dialogue it delves into operational matters that are the purview of staff. It is vital that all board members understand the division of roles and responsibilities between the staff and CEO. This is a critical component of the ongoing board training mentioned above. However, it warrants separate mention.
  9. Governance structure aligned with governing work. It is imperative that board committees and their missions align with the governing work of the board and not with administrative or programmatic functions of the organization. Alignment with governing functions protects against the committees getting into non-governing work/discussions and against board silos tied to specific programs/administrative functions.
  10. Strategic thinking chief executive. It is important that the chief executive model strategic thinking. Along these same lines, it is important for the chief executive to recognize that at times boards wander from board level, strategic thinking and dialogue as a result of the type of information and issues the chief executive puts in front of the board.

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