Philanthropy Impact

Inspiring philanthropy and social investment across borders, sectors and causes

Alignment of Board and Executive

Expert opinion
Superb alignment between the Board, the executive and key stakeholders including funders can be incredibly powerful. Just as the opposite can be an organisation destroyer or an obliterator of value or impact for a social investment. The role of the board can be summed up as ensuring that the organisation has the right vision and strategy, the right resources to fulfil that strategy and the right governance. For the executive is to develop and deliver the business plan and ensure that there is operational and financial integrity. 
 
Yet there is more to alignment than simply having clear and complementary roles, important though that is. 
 
In my experience, how you manage the intersections successfully is as crucial and John Venn’s brilliant concept comes in handy here. In this article we are focussing on the alignment between the Board and the Executive but the analogy can equally used with “Stakeolder” and “Board and executive”. 
 
You may have seen a board and an executive operating in parallel universes. Here, the executive see the board as something to get through, give their presentation, tolerate a few questions and then head off to do exactly what they were going to do anyway. 
 
Or perhaps, the trustees see their role as simply “Police men and women” at board meetings providing oversight and ensuring that they keep a distance. Either way it all feels very “Us” and “Them”. You can get a strong sense of this when you do your first interviews with either the Chair and CEO and others when the “They” count is so much higher than the “We” count, or if the executive get into victim language.
 
At the other end of the spectrum, despite what may be written down in well-crafted terms of reference, the reality is that the roles of the board and the executive are so intertwined that they are effectively doing each-others jobs. 
 
However, highly effective boards seem to be able to achieve great clarity. They use it when it comes to their specific roles as an executive or board member and equally have a very constructive time when they come together for what are usually the most important decisions they are likely to take. Strategy is the obvious one for this. Deciding what culture you want and ensuring that you get it is also one of the most important things to have in the intersection.  The simple rule that every person that you add to the organisation must be additive to culture. 
 
The reality is these are not entirely discrete states, we tend to operate across the spectrum and even the very good have occasional lapses into marginal dysfunction. The key is to talk about it and to work at it. 
Another mathematically oriented graphic is helpful here in getting a feel for how aligned a board are:
 
 
 
From individual conversations with directors or from observing first meetings you can generally tell where the board might be on this spectrum from disorganised rabble to monarchist state. Or happily in the centre all pointing in the same direction but having enough creative tension and challenge to avoid complacency and group think. The paragons in the middle are rarely satisfied, value diversity and different perspectives and have a healthy and robust way of challenging themselves. 
 
The questions to ask each director which can help you decide where they might be before you take an appointment are surprisingly straightforward: 
 
What do you think the point of the organisation is?
How would you describe the strategic priorities?
How do you feel about the strategy overall?
How would you describe the relationship between the Board and the exec, the Chair and the CEO, the CEO and the non-execs, the CEO and the CFO?
What do you think are the top 3 opportunities and challenges that the organisation has over the next few years and in the longer term?
What are the most important decisions the board will have to make in the coming year? 
 
We should naturally expect shades of difference and a healthy variety of opinion but it is surprising how often these simple questions shine a light on either fundamental disagreement or simply a lack of communication or discussion on what matters most. 
 
Patrick Dunne Experienced Chair and Serial social entrepreneur and author of “Boards” – A practical perspective”  from which this article is taken. Chair of EY Foundation and Education Sub- Saharan Africa and Trustee of Chartered Management Institute. Also Founder of Warwick in Africa and a Patron of Leap Confronting Conflict.