Best Board Books #5 - Owning Up: The 14 Questions Every Board Member Needs to Ask

By John Pearson

Here’s a very, very practical book (in my continuing series on best board books)—with serious pokes-in-the-ribs for your board. Guaranteed!

Book #5: Owning Up: The 14 Questions Every Board Member Needs to Ask, by Ram Charan

Governance Guru Ram Charan wrote in 2010, “The financial crisis of 2008 laid bare a long buried truth: that many boards do not really own the strategy of their company.” So rate your board on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 is high). “How strongly does our board own our strategy?"

That’s just one of 13 other pokes-in-the-ribs from the author of numerous other business and governance books including The Attacker’s Advantage and Boards That Lead.

The author says that “if you have no appetite for risk, you shouldn’t be on a board; it will inhibit the CEO from making bold and necessary moves and potentially company-saving bets.”
The “go-to adviser” for corporate boards and CEOs, Ram Charan, says that boards must “own up” to its accountability for the performance of the organization and reinvent the content of their work and modus operandi. He preaches,

Board governance often has fuzzy boundaries and is never easy—but this excellent author/authority has 14 cringe-type questions. Charan doesn’t waste words—firing this question onto the board table in the first paragraph of Chapter 1/Question 1, “Is Our Board Composition Right for the Challenge?”

He writes, “The role of the board has unmistakably transitioned from passive governance to active leadership with a delicate balance of avoiding micromanaging. It’s leadership as a group, not leadership by an appointed person.” He adds, “With the right composition, a board can create value; with the wrong or inappropriate composition, it can easily destroy value.”

He recommends that every board member and board prospect complete a “skill assessment matrix” to assess the board’s overall strengths and weaknesses. “The process is important because a board full of generalists is not good enough anymore,” he warns. Reference checking of board members (well beyond the basic level) is now an absolute necessity. The biggest red flag to avoid: is a board nominee with a big ego.

The discussion of board member succession is worth the price of the book. Insights: 1) the process may take up to three years; 2) many CEOs are limiting their service on other boards to just two, or often just their own board; 3) to get the right mix of board members—for rapidly changing needs—many boards are encouraging incumbents to step down early. (Not easy—but critical.) Perhaps most critical: “Board service is always more attractive when the prospective director knows the board has its act together—that the board is thorough in covering its bases and functions well as a group.”

Effective boards will want to use this book at an annual board retreat—or address one or two questions per board meeting over the next year or more. The book can also be read topically, based on your current hot issues. I started with Question 13, “How Do We Stop From Micromanaging?” All 14 have zinger qualities to them. My favorites, based on my board consulting work, include:
• Question 11: How Can Executive Sessions Help the Board Own Up?
• Question 12: How Can Our Board Self-Evaluation Improve Our Functioning and Our Output?
• Question 2: Are We Addressing the Risks That Could Send Our Company Over the Cliff?
• Question 4: Are We Well Prepared to Name Our Next CEO?
• Question 5: Does Our Board Really Own the Company’s Strategy?

The best practices for the strategy question are both brilliant and practical—but the CEO will need to dramatically increase face time with board members. But the pay-off could be huge. He notes, “Strategy should always be in the back of directors’ minds. It helps to have the strategy brief or a two-page sheet of bullet points in the binder for every meeting.”

Then Charan cautions us, “If the board and the CEO have lasting substantive differences, they have a choice: stay with the strategy or replace the CEO. Consider that management has a shelf life too, just like the strategy.”

BOARD DISCUSSION: After reviewing Charan’s 14 questions, what is the most important question we need to address at our next meeting? Will answering that question require a spiritual discernment process--or are we just too timid about addressing it?

MORE RESOURCES: Follow the “40 Blogs. 40 Wednesdays.” color


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.