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QUESTION 5: Does Our Board Really Own the Strategy?

By John Pearson

“Don’t Come With a Buttoned-Down Strategy Document”

Here’s one of my Top-10 favorite governance quotes:
 

“There is nothing more important for a CEO
then having the right strategy and right choice of goals,
and for the board,
the right strategy is second only to having the right CEO.”


That wisdom is from Ram Charan and it’s very timely during the COVID-19 marathon. Ironically, Charan references another crisis in this chapter. “The financial crisis of 2008 laid bare a long-buried truth: that many boards do not really own the strategy of their company.”

QUESTION 5 of 14: Does Our Board Really Own the [Ministry’s] Strategy?
Owning Up: The 14 Questions Every Board Member Needs to Ask, by Ram Charan (Order from Amazon)

Why is strategy so important—and why should your board own the strategy?

Good News. The CEO of ABC Ministry urges the board to expand into three more countries. This new initiative aligns with the organization’s written strategy and three-year rolling strategic plan. The board’s due diligence process considers this bold move during two consecutive board meetings (with a focused time for prayer and discernment)—and approves.

Bad News. The CEO of XYZ Ministry brags that “ideation” (a good thing) is her top strength from the Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment. But with no prioritization filter, the latest idea-of-the-week lands on the board agenda—with no vetting. In the absence of a written strategy or strategic plan, the board authorizes a considerable chunk of future donations and this non-budgeted brainstorm becomes a boondoggle. Yikes.

The best boards, writes Ram Charan, orchestrate comprehensive strategy discussions at board meetings—with ample time for Q&A. “Don’t come with a buttoned-down strategy document,” board members are requesting, “talk to us about the knotty issues you’re grappling with; tell us what’s on your mind.”

Rather than a 200-slide PowerPoint (snoozer!), Charan recommends a staff/board process that culminates in a five- to seven-page strategy document (about 2,000 words). Read the four-step process in this chapter and learn how to use a two-day board retreat for the fourth step: “Conduct a Strategy Immersion Session.” After one-on-one discussions on earlier drafts (CEO with individual board members), then meet in groups of four at the retreat, and ask:
• “What three things do you like about this strategy?
• What three things do you not like about this strategy?
• What three ideas do you propose that the strategy should seriously consider?”

Read the entire chapter to leverage Charan’s very, very practical—but thorough—approach to engaging the board in strategy.

Example: Noting that strategy should always be in the back of board members’ minds, he writes, “It helps to have the strategy brief or a two-page sheet of bullet points in the binder for every meeting.”

That two-page strategy brief would have helped XYZ Ministry. Board members—steeped in the importance of strategy—would have asked their CEO, “How does this new idea align with our written strategy?” (Short answer: It doesn’t—so please go back to the drawing board and our strategy documents.)

If you only read one chapter in Owning Up, read Chapter 5. And beware! “The shelf-life of a strategy is shortening,” says Charan. “The board’s objectivity and diverse viewpoints can help management detect a bend in the road” and other opportunities to grow or pull back—based on risk assessments.

As you prayerfully discern God’s voice for your ministry’s strategy, couple Ram Charan’s practical insights with Randy Samelson’s six-step plan from 1 Chronicles 28-29, in his helpful book, Breakthrough: Unleashing the Power of a Proven Plan (read my review). He urges board members and ministry leaders to ask the Key Log Question: “Other than money, what one opportunity (or obstacle) if captured (or removed) would most advance your mission/vision?”

BOARDROOM DISCUSSION: Randy Samelson says a credible plan has three elements: 1) It is written. 2) It is measurable. 3) It is responsive to the unexpected. (Oops! How responsive is our current strategic plan to the COVID-19 marathon?)

MORE RESOURCES: Check out these helpful ECFA resources:

BLOG: Click here to read the guest blog by Bruce Johnson from Lesson 2 in More Lessons From the Nonprofit Boardroom, “Engage Board Members in Generative Thinking. They rely on generative thinking in their day jobs but are rarely asked to think collaboratively in the boardroom.” (Click here to read the chapter online.) Johnson reminds us, “No one joins a board because they love hearing reports. People join a board because they want to make a difference, they want to contribute to an organization or church they love.”

• TOOL: Consider summarizing your strategy and strategic plan with a one-page 11” x 17” template, “The Rolling 3-Year Strategic Plan Placemat,” Tool #14 from the book, ECFA Tools and Templates for Effective Board Governance: Time-Saving Solutions for Your Board. Click here to read the color commentary on Tool #14.

 

This article was originally posted on the “Governance of Christ-Centered Organizations” blog, hosted by ECFA.
John Pearson, a board governance consultant and author, was ECFA’s governance blogger from 2011 to 2020.
© 2021, ECFA and John Pearson. All rights reserved.


This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.

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