4 Tips When Board Members Dip Into Operational Areas

By John Pearson

If your board members are never tempted to dip into operational areas—please nominate them today for the “Board Member Hall of Fame!”

It’s an easy trap:
• The CEO casually mentions a problem area—and a board member with expertise in that realm jumps in with both feet and mouth.
• Or…a senior team member sincerely values feedback from the board, but inappropriately invites board members—during the board meeting—to weigh in with their opinions, irrespective of their expertise!
• Or…a board member, wearing her volunteer hat, questions a tactical decision in her favorite program—but it’s not an agenda item, nor should it be.

Mary Lynn McPherson, senior consultant with STRIVE! (a governance consulting firm), recommends four tips to help boards reach “an appropriate level of oversight,” while still keeping their fingers out of the operations.

The full article is posted here. Here’s a quick summary:

TIP #1. Prioritize questions to management. For example, is there a violation of board policy? McPherson says that would be a high-priority question, even if it’s “operational.”

TIP #2. Start with the facts—end with a question. (This is my favorite tip.) She writes, “The manner in which we probe either builds or threatens rapport. When we assume others have a positive motivation to do what’s best, that goodwill is conveyed in our tone. Taking an objective focus on the facts is less threatening compared to ‘what are you going to do about…?’”

TIP #3. When it is tense, clarify your position. “When we suspect our queries might be received with sensitivity it can be helpful to state your positive intention.” (The tip includes two examples on thoughtfully probing without creating unnecessary tension.)

TIP #4. Ask yourself “is this issue ‘material’?” This is an excellent question. Not every question that bounces into the fertile minds of board members must be spoken out loud. Be sure to read this tip.

Download the article for your next board meeting. Perhaps divide the board into four groups for a do-it-yourself spiritual insights segment—and ask each group to drill down on one tip, and then suggest one or two Bible verses that would enrich the big idea behind each point.

Example: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but harsh words cause quarrels.” (Proverbs 15:1, TLB)

QUESTION: In his book, The Power of a Whisper, Bill Hybels noted that at the end of a Willow Creek Community Church elders meeting, the chair posed this question: “Does anybody need to make amends for anything, clarify a point or apologize for a wrongdoing of any kind?” Have you ever asked that question at your board meeting?


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.