How to engage boards on hot topics

Since the start of the pandemic, nonprofit boards have been busier than ever — more meetings, more Zoom calls. But despite all this conversation, councils may still struggle to determine their role. This is all the more true as the pressure to tackle social problems has increased. According to a recent National Association of Corporate Directors “Future of the Boardroom” survey30% of board members say “CEOs who remain silent on social issues” will be less acceptable in the future.

In this environment, boards play a role in ensuring that the larger goals of the organization are established. “It’s the board’s responsibility to get the company to think longer term,” said NACD Board Chair Sue Cole. “The CEO is at the heart of everything and has to be very responsive to things that come up. The board can serve as a lens to refocus a bit on a longer-term goal.

But that’s not to say that councils don’t have a role to play in conversations about hot topics. Indeed, it’s a conversation CEOs should intentionally encourage, says NACD CEO Peter Gleason, because it’s a conversation about stakeholders: customers, members and staff. “CEOs are the ones who will be asked these questions, but the expectations don’t just come from their shareholder base,” he said. “These are very difficult issues that can put you in a very difficult situation if you don’t approach them appropriately.”

So how do you approach it appropriately? As CEO, Gleason sees his role as one of leading conversations that push board members out of their bubbles and out of their comfort zones, not giving predetermined answers but initiating debate. For such a topic, he says, “my job to prepare the directors for this discussion was to bring together a variety of viewpoints on the issue and send them several readings that they needed to explore further,” he said. . “Directors always come with their own perspective on an issue: what they’ve learned from other boards they sit on, their own reading. But people turn to their favorite source for these things. So they read the same material over and over and over again.

You have a lot of well-meaning people who want to do the right thing, but they need up-to-date tools and thinking to do it.

Sue Cole, NACD

But just as important as helping board members get up to speed on a particular issue, Cole and Gleason say, is ensuring boards have the preparation to think flexibly and strategically. NACD’s Future of the Boardroom survey asked directors about the changes they anticipate in America’s boardrooms over the next three years. on the work of the board itself and to hold underperforming board members to account.

NACD, for its part, has formalized orientation around the skills board members need: In 2020, there launched a certification program for company directors which covers most of the work of the board of directors and helps them to follow the regulatory developments related to governance. The program aims to address a problem as pronounced in the association world as it is in the corporate world – people who want to be board leaders without much guidance on what the job requires. “You have a lot of well-meaning people who want to do the right thing, but they need tools and up-to-date thinking to do it,” Cole said.

But whether the training is through a formal certification or orientation program, Gleason said the goal should be to train volunteer leaders in how to work as a board, not train them. to all the operational challenges that arise. “It seems like over the last three or four years, every critical issue like cybersecurity requires you to have an expert on your board,” he said. “It’s not a viable solution.”

What are you doing to prepare your board for conversations about difficult topics? Share your experiences in the comments.

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