This is the second in a three-part series I will post in the coming months exploring the burdens that are (and are not) integral to board high performance. (Please read Part 1.) In Part 2, I will explore the essential burdens of board service and discuss how all contributors can work together to create a supportive context within which they share these burdens for the benefit of their associations, stakeholders and systems.
Three Essential Burdens of Board Service
When association boards agree to let go of the orthodox and counterproductive burdens of tradition, representation and implementation discussed in Part 1, they can focus instead on embracing the three essential burdens of board service:
The burden of stewardship
Stewardship is the shared commitment to leave the system better than how we found it because the system belongs to all stakeholders. Boards agree to carry the primary burden of stewardship on behalf of their stakeholders and fulfill the serious responsibility of guiding those systems into an increasingly complex and uncertain future. The burden of stewardship requires every director to understand that they are only temporary holders of a decision-making role who must set aside personal considerations and work with other directors to adopt a holistic view of how to build thrivable systems for the benefit of current and future stakeholders.
The burden of governing
In my new eBook, Foresight is The Future of Governing: Building Thrivable Boards, Stakeholders and Systems for the 21st Century, I define governing as “an intentional and dynamic process for enabling the coherence, capability and continuity of the system.” The orthodox view of the burden of governing encourages boards to focus on long-standing priorities, including financial oversight, legal compliance and policymaking. While such functions remain necessary, the true burden of governing today lies not in association boards performing traditional activities that can be handled by other means but in their sustained effort to pursue the essential outcomes of governing (as described in the definition above) and make progress in fulfilling their stewardship responsibility to stakeholders.
The burden of foresight
The transformation of our society is well underway. It is already creating significant disruption across many industries and professions and, soon enough, it will envelop every field of human endeavor and experience. Associations are not ready for the future and boards must carry the burden of foresight that is critical to both stewardship and governing. This column is not called “The Duty of Foresight” by accident. Association boards have a sacrosanct obligation to learn with the future and to use what they learn to anticipate and prepare their associations, stakeholders and systems for a full range of plausible futures, especially the unfavorable and unthinkable futures that may force the fundamental and involuntary reinvention of what today’s boards and their predecessors have built over many decades.
To deal effectively with the essential burdens of stewardship, governing and foresight, directors will need to marshal their attention, emotional and energy resources. All three of these burdens will test the capacity of boards to handle ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty, feel empathy, humility and vulnerability and nurture collaboration, curiosity and imagination in their work. While association boards voluntarily accept the responsibility to carry these burdens, they should not carry them alone.
Sharing the Burdens
Creating a supportive partnership involving boards, chief staff executives and their teams, as well as other governing contributors, such as committees/task forces and external advisors, has never been more crucial. In most associations, boards are the primary stewards but all stakeholders can make meaningful contributions to stewardship if boards create a shared sense of responsibility that inspires action. Boards can make it simpler for all governing contributors to provide more helpful advice and guidance by articulating governing intent. As part of a consistent practice of foresight, associations can organize foresight networks, composed of both internal and external stakeholders, to accelerate learning and infuse fresh insights into the board’s process of learning with the future. By implementing these and other next practices, boards can carry their burdens while making them less burdensome.
In Part 3 of this series, I will examine how today’s association boards continue to carry a burden created by their predecessors and explore what today’s boards must do to eliminate that burden for their successors.