Governance as leadership, boards as borders

Governance is one of those perennial areas of life that no one ever seems quite happy with – in the cultural sector as in the larger political sphere. Open a discussion about it and it more often than not talk turns to dissatisfaction before you can say ‘any other business’. I gave a talk last week at MMM’s re.volution Wales event on governance in Cardiff. I won’t replay the whole day here but I did discuss some ideas I can easily share here.

(I’ve got tendonitis in my left hand at the moment, so blogs that aren’t already partly ‘written’ in some form for other purposes may be a bit more infrequent for a while, as I try and steer clear of the laptop when I can.)

First, here are some questions I asked the attendees (leaders in the arts in Wales, from a variety of backgrounds and places):

  • How many people here see themselves as cultural leaders? (All, some more confidently than others.)
  • How many feel their working life would be very different if there was no board or governance oversight? (Next to none!)
  • How many people have a governance role of some kind – board, school, advisory group, steering group etc? (Most.)
  • How many live their governor’s lives in the way they do their work? (Answer redacted to spare blushes. I certainly admitted to not always doing this. In the past, obviously.)

I related governance to adaptive resilience, through the descriptor for ‘Leadership and Governance’ in my ‘8 characteristics’:

Organisation displays leadership which provides clarity internally and externally, with decision making process aligned to business model. Constantly seeking improvement and future-focussed, whilst delivering current plans. Addresses key issues with appropriate levels of challenge and support. Clear roles and responsibilities are agreed, but able to flex to circumstances. Clear, challenging and supportive management and reporting systems in place.

Governance also relates very clearly to other areas of the framework such as developing a culture of shared purpose, networks and so on.

I structured my talk around a series of ‘triangles’. (A bit of a risk for me as like any good Libran consultant I naturally prefer binaries or 2×2 matrices.) This was because my central point (and triangle) referred to the central idea of an excellent book, Governance as Leadership by Richard Chait, William Ryan and Barbara Taylor.

Chait, Ryan and Taylor argue there are three modes needed for ‘governance as leadership’:

1. Fiduciary – stewardship, but generally in the form of supervision and managing of legal and other responsibilities – ‘having a grip off things’. It should also be extended to inquiry questions about the extent of delivery of ‘the right things right’.
2. Strategic – strategic direction setting in partnership with executive leaders. This involves business and strategic planning but is more than a paper exercise.
3. Generative – the wider leadership role which is more questioning, enquiring and creative rather than simply about managing processes or deciding on strategic goals.

Chait, Ryan and Taylor argue convincingly that too much non-profit governance concentrates on Types 1 and 2, leading to many of the weaknesses persistently identify in governance – what John Carver called ‘incompetent groups of competent people’. Over-concentration on those modes can lead to a tick-box, roles and responsibilities-focused approach, with standardized agendas and ritualized strategic planning rather than innovative, creative thinking, which delivers a kind of compliance with good practice but misses the point. It can also lessen the motivation of skilled and committed people, never a good thing, and blind them to key issues, through repetition and tone.

Much of the discussion, debate and training around governance has, Chait et al argue, centred on the practical level. They argue – and I would agree – that attention now needs to shift to governance as leadership. Our conversations and research about cultural governance need to as rich as the best of those about cultural leadership. (Which tend not to focus overly on job descriptions – as I said on the day, when people reach for their job descriptions it’s not generally a sign of an imminent breakthrough…)

A second triangle (forgive me if I don’t illustrate all of these, vita brevis and all that…) considered ‘what funders want from governance’. I suggested this was:

1. Connectivity – knowledge that the board is connecting staff into other networks, funds, opinions, communities and that the board helps the staff team see beyond its immediate horizons
2. Reassurance – a sense of safety, that reliable people are overseeing an organisation and that nothing (too) embarrassing is likely to happen. (Funders don’t like to be embarrassed, and out media culture can be unforgiving.)
3. Someone to talk with – some other routes into organisations, someone to talk to about the very long-term, someone who can be constructively challenging to them in a different way

(Reflecting on that, I think I may have underplayed the creativity and sense of shared purpose that can sometimes be developed found in the best conversations or relationships between funder and a board. It should be noted that not all funders work in the same way, or are able to, due to diminished resources.)

An important ‘triangle’ I set out related to the different time horizons governance needs to consider. These I described as

1. Now – plans, purpose, performance. ‘Now’ in governance terms often means ‘the last three months’, but it is important that information is as up-to-date as humanly possible.
2. Tomorrow – strategy, world, what is likely to happen around you, to you, and with you – what can you influence? This includes what in adaptive resilience terms I describe as ‘situation awareness’ – being aware of trends, change and potential. It includes reflecting on the purpose and mission of the organisation and periodically assessing its continued relevance (or otherwise).
3. Yesterday – organisational memory is an important factor in adaptive resilience, though it should inform rather than restrict organisations.

We also talked about why there is often a difference between the team sheet and the performance in governance. I talked about the importance of motivation and stretching tasks to performance, how a check lists approach can be death to active listening, and thus to creative thinking and motivation, and boards as learning environments. (For me this is often because of my own frustration at my own ‘performance’, and a need to find better ways of being a board member of chair – it’s damned hard work…) The triangle I used talked of three things being a good board member is not about:

1. Your role description – this is a basis not a limit – boards could be places where you ask not ‘What am I doing here?’, but ‘What can I do here?’
2. Your ‘day job’ job title – except in a few cases it should be much more about your networks/various sorts of capitals (social, maybe even money), skills and the effort you’ll put in, rather than your status
3. Checking things – it should be a more active and complex activity, which has the benefit of being more developmental in return for the effort put in.

My final ‘triangle’ aimed to flush out some of the peculiarities of arts and culture governance, where a kind of dance by artistic and audience or social and financial imperatives needs to be achieved:

1. Vision – artistic or cultural, often driven by an individual or group vision or expression
2. Constituency – who is the organisation for, what is its role in that constituency (eg local or artistic) and how is it doing, what might it best achieve – the richness of this conversation often dictates success
3. Situation – artistic, social, financial, market – the richness of understanding around this can be crucial, and governance has a special role in this as partly outside of the organisation. (At one point I found myself suggesting ‘Boards as borders’ was a useful image – them being both in and out.)

Clait et al sum up one of the key things that can come out of this triangle when working well:

‘In Type III governance, trustees and executives consider, debate, and commit to a dominant narrative, especially at moments of confusion and ambiguity. They create an organizational saga . . . a unified set of publicly expressed beliefs about the [organization] that (a) is rooted in history, (b) claims unique accomplishment, and (c) is held with sentiment.’

The group also did a bit of a brainstorm around metaphors or images for cultural leadership and cultural governance, which came up with two quite different lists. Images for cultural leadership tended to be more individual and more positive. (‘Bright light bulb that is sometimes off, and can become its own switch.’) Those for governance often implied a group activity, and were more ambivalent if not downright negative. (‘Assault course’, ‘A hot air balloon with lead weights’.)

A central theme for me, reflecting on the day as a whole, was the extent to which the collective, social act of governance relies on personal responsibility. If if every trustee agreed to work as they do at work, or if promotion/profit/whatever hung on their board work, and to make governance a space/process where everyone could do that, how much would governance improve?