10 habits at the heart of exemplary board governance

two_thumbs_up_400_clr_11665In a recent article, I pointed board members who fancy themselves as difference makers in the direction of the board development committee. My reasoning? No organization will be stronger than its board, at least not in the long-term, which makes helping to build a strong board the most important work a board member can do.

I failed, however, to lay out the characteristics of a strong board. So I’m back with more on the topic, this time leaning on an article from the March/April 2014 issue of Trusteeship magazine. Although directed to trustees serving colleges and universities, “The 10 Habits of Highly Effective Boards” apply to boards of all nonprofits, including those with a faith base.


In identifying the ten habits, Richard Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) and author of the Trusteeship piece, draws on his more than 30-year experience with boards and their institutions. Here is Legon’s list, with my commentary in italics.

High-performing boards:

1. Create a culture of inclusion. There’s no hint of a “board within the board.” The best boards work as a team of equals. Every member’s opinions, questions, and wisdom count.

2. Uphold basic fiduciary principles. Members of exemplary boards are laser focused on mission fulfillment with economic vitality, with strategic indicators linked to every principle.

3. Cultivate a healthy relationship with the president. Regardless how stellar the credentials of the CEO, she or he can’t — indeed shouldn’t — go it alone. Organizational leadership, when done well, is an ensemble performance.

4. Select an effective board chair. The chair is to the board as the CEO is to the staff. Having the right person in both slots is essential to organizational success.

5. Establish a strong governance committee. Go here for my views on this one.

6. Delegate appropriate decision-making  authority to committees. Nothing deflates committee members like the full board second guessing recommendations. Expect the best, trust the work, and act accordingly.

7. Consider strategic risk factors. Exemplary boards explore the cons along with the pros of new programs, big ideas, or a change in organizational direction.

8. Provide appropriate oversight of academic [program] quality. The emphasis on “appropriate” isn’t just mine. It’s the golden mean toward which exemplary boards strive in their oversight of the organization.

9. Develop a renewed commitment to shared governance. As the author of the Trusteeship article warns, “boards that choose to act precipitously or presume a top-down management style in making decisions will likely reap only counterproductive results.”

10. Focus on accountability. This is the other side of point 2. Exemplary boards track, access, measure, and expect that the organization is living up to its mission.

So, back to my starting premise. If you fancy yourself a difference maker, get you to a board development committee. Greater work has no board member than this, to have a part in recruiting, orienting, assessing, and educating governance peers toward the ten habits listed above. Do I hear an amen?

For other thoughts on exemplary board governance, see:

All hands needed on the governance deck, and noses, too

Strategies for avoiding meddling by meeting

A five-step cure for boredom in the boardroom





What's your take on this topic?

%d bloggers like this: