What legacy do you plan to leave as chair or as a director?

Are you making a difference?

I sat in a board meeting several years ago when one director said to the others in attendance that they thought that the former chair, who had recently stepped down, had made very little difference to the board or the organisation over the five years or so of the chair’s tenure.

Naturally, I was startled, and whilst a couple of others were startled too, others were nodding their heads. I’ll never forget that moment.

I have shared that experience with many chairs, directors and boards since. To me, it’s a big wake up call for all of us as directors and chairs. None of us would want the remaining directors to say that we made little or no difference because of our tenure on the relevant board.

So, what legacy do you plan to leave when you step down from your board?

Oversight and adding value

Most directors and executives understand the importance of good governance including appropriate oversight and many ensure that significant time and focus of the board is spent on the governance of performance, risk and compliance.

With some boards failing in their oversight roles with disastrous implications, being a stickler for good governance can be a good thing. Some directors would be pleased to be able to leave a legacy of having kept their board and their organisation on the straight and narrow and out of trouble, but most directors want to achieve more than that.

Most don’t want to just go through the motions. Discussing this concept during a recent board evaluation demonstrated that some directors do want to achieve more.

“I’d rather drown than just tread water.”

“I’m not on the planet to be average, I’m here to make a big and positive difference.”

Most directors want others to say that they added value to the board and their organisation at the end of their tenure. But a board is a team, and a single director is unlikely to be able to make a significant difference to an organisation unless their focus and efforts are aligned with the rest of the board.

In our experience, more boards could benefit from digging deep to understand and agree on where they should devote their collective efforts to make the biggest positive difference and to add the most value.

How to make a difference

1. Do a pre-mortem

Most organisations do a good post-mortem of their year when they set out their performance and successes in their annual report.

We like to challenge boards to do a pre-mortem at the start of each year. We challenge them to think about the two or three things that they can do over the next 12 to 18 months to add the most value to their organisation over the next five years.

A wonderful way to do that is to produce a long list and work together to turn that into a short list of the two or three things that the board agree they will put their collective effort behind. It sounds easy to do but very few boards have reached a consensus on their own two or three priorities for the next 12 months that will add the most value over the next five years.

If each director puts their attention towards their hobby horse or thing, they are likely to pull in different directions and their individual efforts are likely to be dissipated. Worse still they are likely to cause significant organisational confusion which will also dissipate the organisation’s efforts.

2. Think of a rugby scrum

We encourage boards to visualise that they are a rugby scrum putting their collective effort into knocking down two or three otherwise impenetrable barriers – and if they apply their collective focus and effort to do so they are likely to succeed.

Directors know they won’t have the time, energy and focus to knock down, say, 79 walls – and having far too many priorities usually means that most such efforts will fail. So, it is better to think very carefully upfront (the pre-mortem) about where the board plans to apply their collective efforts.

We trust that you and your board are not just going through the governance motions but also making a deliberate decision about where you will add value and about what legacy you will leave as a director and a board.

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