The Tools and Techniques of Governance are Different from those of Management

Since our boards are often populated with people who are schooled in the methods of management, they often try to bring those techniques to the job of governing. This is a mistake, especially in a Policy Governance setting.

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Managers have to either do the job, or get the job done. Their business is dealing with the motivation and skill development of their team, and figuring out how to produce the required results on time and on budget. They are the doers, or the managers of the doers. Their business is doing.

The role of the board is actually very different from management. The job of the board is to see to it that the organization accomplishes what it should, and does not do what it should not. The board holds others accountable for the doing, it does not do it itself — or even instruct the doers as to how to do their jobs.

Since the job is different, the tools of governance are different.

The board is at the top of the org-chart, so it has an authority that is similar to management to command people to do its bidding. This is authority the board is better not to use. Since it can, boards often slip into the role of management. Sometimes staff like to pretend that an issue is too important for them, so you hear them say, “I’ll have to take that to my board.” Some board members like helping by providing wise direction. In fact, by taking this bait and making decisions requested by the staff, the board is making the staff dependent on it. Also, once the board has ruled on a staff action, the staff is no longer accountable for the consequences.

As a consultant I will often see a board with an agenda that is so full of operational management issues that the board feels it has no time to devote to (what seems to be) the less urgent issues of governance. When I suggest that the board let the staff manage their affairs, and use board policies to hold the staff accountable for results, I am sometimes told that the board does not believe the staff is capable. Sometimes, when I discuss this with the staff, the staff would agree. In this case, the board is management, and the so-called executive director is just an assistant. Unless this situation is changed, the real leadership role of the board, that the community needs to ensure that this organization achieves what is should, is lost.

How are the tools of governance different from management?

All of the board’s tools require the use of words. The only legitimate results of the board’s work are its words. This is an important point. The words of the board should mean something. The board members do not spend their whole working time governing (or if they do, they shouldn’t). They show up once and a while to be sure that the organization is behaving appropriately. The job of governing requires time and diligence, but should not require 100% of a person’s time.

In the case of not-for-profit societies, the consequence of the words created by the board should be a necessary benefit to the community. Read the minutes of most boards’ meetings to see what words it has crafted lately, and what real differences it has produced. The record of many of our boards shows that enormous amount of good peoples’ time is spent on trivial matters.

With Policy Governance, the most powerful tool is the expression of what must be accomplished. These are the Ends policies. Somehow, the word policy in many minds is a vague expression. With PG it is not. While policy allows for discretion, the board can be as precise and focused as necessary when describing the required results. The hard part is articulating what is truly needed well enough so that the doers will be able to produce those results. How many board members really know what is needed by their organization well enough to be able to express it, in writing, for the world — and staff — to see?

When the board has articulated a full suite of PG polices in all 4 quadrants, it can be confident that the staff knows what is required.

Writing policy is only half of the job. The board must know how well the staff is achieving the policies, and that it is not doing anything that is inappropriate. The tool for this is the monitoring report. Every policy must be rigorously monitored on a regular schedule. The board can write the policies, and it can determine who is accountable for providing the monitoring report (for Ends and Executive Limitations), but it must not describe the contents of the monitoring report. It can, however, reject an unsatisfactory report. This is an important point that we will explore in a future article.

How to write policy and the methods of monitoring is described in the PG literature. However, to write policy in the first place the board must have a clear vision of what must be achieved. The board members’ total authority to do this comes from their understanding of what the ownership would have them say.

To summarize: the main tools of governance are

  • the board’s approved policies
  • the monitoring reports required by the board

The board must become skilled in crafting policies that will make the required differences in our community; and the board will have to learn how to respond when it receives monitoring reports — especially reports that do not give the board the comfort that the organization is on target. This is the job of governance, and it is very different from management.

© 2007 R. Ballantyne. All rights reserved. This is for your use at your computer screen. For reproduction of any kind you will need the written permission of the author.

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