One aspect of my work that I thoroughly enjoy is planning and leading board alignment sessions with all types of organizations (non-profit, private and public) with boards of any size. I recently planned and led a successful alignment session for an 11-member board, and while it’s fresh in my mind, I thought it would be beneficial to share some of the elements that made it successful and why this process is beneficial for any board.
The board in question has gone through a number of significant challenges in the last year and a half, including the integration of a couple of new board members and a new Chair who had only been a board member for six months prior to being appointed Chair. The Chair had no history with the organization or the board prior. Over half of the directors had been on this board for more than four years, while several had joined in the past three years. The board had been divided on a number of issues, and it needed outside assistance to effectively align on key priorities.
The Chair knew the board needed the support of a neutral outside party to move forward and effectively coalesced the board to support bringing someone in. While a couple of directors were skeptical, they unanimously agreed that the initiative was integral to achieve greater board effectiveness by the end of my one-on-one interaction with each.
Here are some indicators that a board will benefit from an alignment session:
- When a board has refreshed and/or augmented its composition with one or more new members there is a need to proactively ensure that everyone is in alignment on critical issues, strategy, strategic priorities and/or challenges that aren’t being resolved and/or can’t be fully addressed during regularly scheduled board meetings
- When there is a feeling of “us versus them” limiting the effectiveness of the board and/or the CEO/Executive Director
- When there is a division between directors who are in support of the CEO/Executive Director and others who are not– some believing the leader is effective while others don’t
- When the Chair is new to the board and selected directors resist leadership from an “outsider,” allowing their decisions to be biased in favor of past norms rather than considering current and future strategic trajectory
- When the board has not adopted a clear set of decision-making processes, has not been consistent with its oversight role and/or has not been engaged in ensuring that all committees are addressing their top priorities
- When the board has a new Chair who has not been elected through proper succession planning, elected in reaction to a change or crisis within the board or the organization
- When the board is divided about strategy, strategic priorities, the leadership of the organization or about any event that had negative ramifications for the organization internally or externally in the past year
- When the board needs an objective and trusted third party to get realigned because internal preconceived judgments and expectations are impeding a fresh perspective.
The situations in which a board might pursue having an alignment session are not limited to the circumstances listed above, and having an alignment session is not an indicator that a board is dysfunctional! Boards should strive to be healthy. The importance of good board dynamics and good governance can’t be underestimated and require vigilance.
The success of a board alignment session depends on several specific elements:
– The Chair champions the initiative. Since the Chair has the responsibility of leading the board, s/he should champion initiatives like alignment sessions, and the Chair must have clear goals and expectations for these sessions. (Otherwise, I help or define these.) While other directors might recommend an alignment session, the Chair has the responsibility of owning the path to alignment and healthier dynamics with or without one.
In my most recent session, I defined the expectations and the goals in conjunction with the Chair. It was imperative for all directors to understand how the board was aligned and misaligned; to understand respective directors’ roles and responsibilities and the roles and responsibilities of the board and management. It was my responsibility to poll everyone to gain every director’s perspective about their top three strategic priorities and how the board could be more effective. We could not assume that all had a common understanding.
– The Chair and the CEO concur on the selection of the third party, and a third party is hired. A board alignment session should not be planned and led by a director or an employee. While it is the Chair’s responsibility to engage the third party, I have found that it is helpful to get the CEO/Executive Director involved in interviewing the external partner, such as myself, and to ensure that the CEO/Executive Director is wholly in support of the alignment session. This consideration results in more openness and trust throughout the process. It is important for the third party to be in a position to effectively poll every single director, including the CEO/Executive Director.
In the case of my recent board alignment session, I was introduced to the Chair by a board director who knew me. I was interviewed by both the Chair and the leader of the organization who then both agreed to engage me. They both felt very positive about the process that I was suggesting and the chemistry was good between all of us, which greatly helped with the eventual success of the board alignment initiative.
– Every board member, including the CEO/Executive Director, participates in an mandatory inquiry. It is essential that every board director participates in the inquiry to gain everyone’s views, good or bad. If there is one director who doesn’t participate, the board can’t reach true alignment.
In my recent session, I developed a customized inquiry to ensure that we would surface the key concerns and the positives about the organization, the board dynamics and future direction, and every board member was included. I ensured that we didn’t assume that all directors could articulate the vision, mission and strategic priorities of the organization. Every single director was collaborative and open, assured that any information shared was held in confidentiality.
– All directors attend the board alignment session. While this should be mandatory, it is at times not realistic to have everyone physically present. In the event that some members can not participate in the session, they need to be looped in quickly.
In the session in question, two directors had last-minute business and personal emergencies and were unable to attend. The Chair took ownership of bringing them up-to-date soon after the session was held. All Chairs should do so promptly and ensure that all directors will be in alignment with the findings and recommended action plan.
– The action plan is addressed by the board no later than the next scheduled board meeting, and this action plan is executed with a process. There is a lot of valuable information that gets shared through this type of session. It is important to address the utmost priorities with civility and clear processes.
This 11-member board was astounded by how much was captured and shared and how much will need thoughtful prioritizing and delegation within the board and management. The board committed to “get to work.”
The ultimate goal of a board alignment session is to inspire and enlist all directors to work together for the ultimate success of the organization they all serve. In every session that I have led, participants consistently agree that they have gained clarity about more than they could have envisioned and they all wish they had held a session sooner.
In the session addressed here, most felt empowered by gaining clarity about what needed to be addressed and the eventual positive impact on the board and the organization. The board was undisputedly aligned on the possibilities that lie ahead, and that was powerful for them and for me.
In my role I share the truth of “what is.” Everyone gains clarity and is afterward able to focus from the same context. With focus, the needed changes and results are inevitable.
I typically recommend a very minimal allocation of four hours for a board alignment session. It can be held in the evening. If four hours in the gym left you fit for a year, wouldn’t you likely commit the time? Arguably, the stakes for the average board are high enough to warrant this small, rewarding investment!