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Making your board more energetic and meaningful

October 5, 2012
by Shannon Brys, Associate Editor
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CEO of Common Ground shares his knowledge of board governance with the audience at the Behavioral Healthcare Leadership Summit.

Among the keys to highly effective board governance include keeping board members engaged, freshening up the agenda for meetings, and having interesting meetings so members are excited to attend and feel that their time is valued. These tips, among others, were discussed in a session called “Revitalizing the Energy and Work of Your Board: Executing the Governance as Leadership Model” at the Behavioral Healthcare Leadership Summit in Orlando, Fla. 

Tony Rothschild, CEO at Common Ground for 22 years, said that an important place to start is to “look at your board agendas over the last year to see what you have done.”

“I think 90 percent  of the boards in America really don’t do a good job because we never really learned how to run boards,” he said.  “We have some books that say ‘don’t micromanage,’ ‘policy-this,’ ‘implement staffs’ position,’ but there’s not a lot of literature out there about what to talk about, and what we really should be doing. So we just model it after the last board we were on.” 

“And if your experience was like mine ...,” he continued, “I’ve been to a lot of boring meetings in my life, I’ve heard lots of reports—I was on a school board for 16 years. I used to get stacks of material before every meeting, which obviously I wasn’t going to read but pretended I did.  And my eyes were just rolling on the reports. At Common Ground, we try not to do that by bringing in stories and trying to have a more vibrant meeting.”

“A lot of times as a CEO, I started working on the agenda of a committee meeting or something 20 minutes before the meeting, I was trying to figure out what to put on the agenda. And that’s really not what it’s about,” he explained.

Rothschild also talked about important questions for boards to discuss.  He suggested that one important question to ask to assess the importance or meaning of your board is, “How would the organization be if the board hadn’t met in the past two years? If the answer is, 'the same,' then things should be changed," he asserts.

Another question that he finds an important for board discussion is: “With the healthcare reform bill (Affordable Care Act) passing, what is that going to mean to our organization and what are we going to do about it?”

Rothschild called attention to three modes of governance that he believes should be present--and properly balanced--for any board to be successful.  

Three modes of governance:

·        Fiduciary- The fiduciary mode includes the items that people normally associate with the oversight role of boards and board meetings: contract compliance, budget, audits, and the like.  “Most of the time we are stuck in fiduciary mode,” Rothschild explained.  “We hear lots of reports and make sure things are going the way they should be.”

·        Strategic- He said that almost every board has a strategic plan, often generated at an annual board retreat.  Rothschild said that he loves the energy, excitement and motivation that board members have when they come out of such a retreat.  “This," he said, "is what we want every board meeting to look like.” 

·        Generative- The third mode--the one that Rothschild says that many boards lack--is the generative mode. He calls this “the part of board governance that brings in the problems that face your organization.” All too often, he said, generative problem-solving is done by staff, who take it upon themselves to develop possible solutions, then offer reports on the issues, together with pre-defined options for review and selection by the board.

Rothschild said that boards ought to be challenged to consider such problems directly, so that they can better utilize their experiences and backgrounds to help staff consider and develop solutions. He asked the audience to "think of generative work as all those kinds of things that define who you are as an organization.”

To further clarify on the difference between strategic and generative modes of board involvement, Rothschild used these exmaples: 

·        In strategic mode, board is to organization as conductor is to symphony

·        In generative mode, board is to organization as artist is to blank canvas. 

“To get into really good board governance, you have to get into all three areas and have to spend a lot of time on generative.  And, you have to make time for it when it’s not coming naturally because we--leaders and board members alike--are not used to doing it.  Like any new thing, you have to keep practicing it,” he explained.

He said that he regularly discusses with board members what generative question they would like to have on their next board agenda. He said that adding a generative question changes what the board agenda looks like and helps to change what the board talks about. 

Three areas boards should be talking about:

1.      The first area to consider is “What are the three or four things that keep the CEO awake at night?”


2.      The second area comes from the news, the outside world.  “A great example of this is the Affordable Healthcare Act,” he said, “because it has a major impact on all of our organizations and that’s coming from the outside.”


3.      Another area is comparing your organization to itself year to year, or comparing your organization to other organizations.