When a Board Asks Questions

“It’s the board’s responsibility to ask questions.  And it’s the staff’s responsibility to respond.”

We were discussing the roles of a non-profit governing board and the relationship between a board and an institution’s administrative leaders, especially as it relates to strategic planning.  The Executive Committee Board member who made this statement is new to non-profit governance, but not new to board work.  He serves on a number of boards that govern internationally-recognized for-profit corporations.  He is sharp, sophisticated, and sincere in his service.  His statement attested to an understanding that has emerged for him after years of for-profit board work.

We were seated next to each other and he looked at me for a response.

“Yes,” I started, “it is the role of the board to ask questions.  But, just as importantly, board members must understand what types of questions will lead to the most fruitful discussions and outcomes.  Some questions are more productive than others.  And some can be  downright unhelpful.”

In my experience, board members – those who are well-meaning and truculent alike – can ask 3 types of questions:

  1. Questions focused on the staff and their work
  2. Questions focused on the institution and its mission, vision, and values
  3. Questions focused on the board and their work

Questions that fall into category 1 can be the most unhelpful.  Questions in this category tilt the psychological gaze of the board member down to the administration and staff.  Unless there is an emergency or crisis or unless a board member is genuinely attempting to understand how a part of the enterprise works, it is the responsibility of the president/ceo/chancellor/administrative leader to focus questions on the team and their work.  Generally speaking, when board members ask category 1 questions, the board can drift into focusing on operational and managerial issues.  Straying from governance responsibilities into operations is one of the most unproductive, unfulfilling, and frustrating journeys a board can take.

Category 2 and 3 questions are types that are much more helpful and appropriate for a board member to ask.  Questions focused on the mission, vision, and values of the institution encourage board members to lift their gaze upward, to dream, and identify the institution’s far edge of promise.  These questions lead to important generative and strategic discussions.  They help the institution understand and embrace its strengths and move confidently toward a preferred future.  From these questions emerge discussions that help determine institutional aspirations.  In turn, administrators and staff can identify meaningful goals and objectives.

Similarly, questions that focus the board’s attention on the work of the board itself are extremely helpful.  When a board looks inward and asks how they can serve more effectively and conduct their business more efficiently, they generate discussion that will lead to enhanced board leadership.  Likewise, when they ask how to implement a “best practice” board evaluation, they are moving toward helpful accountability.

Yes, it is the responsibility of the board to ask questions.  And it is also true that the very best boards know which types of questions to ask.



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