Called to Serve: Do Not Censor What the Board Receives

By John Pearson

Note: This is No. 11 in a series of blogs featuring wisdom from the 91-page gem by Max De Pree, Called to Serve: Creating and Nurturing the Effective Volunteer Board.

Max De Pree: "The administrative team should never see themselves as the censors of what the board receives. The administration should be especially careful not to screen out things that may bring pain to the board. Like a good leader, a good board doesn't inflict pain; it bears pain."

Many boards create a culture of trust with a "no surprises" core value. Rule No.1 for CEOs: Never surprise the board. Rule No. 2: Deliver bad news early and often.

De Pree reminds CEOs and senior team members that putting their best foot forward often means putting the bad news forward--not censoring what goes to the board.

Some years back, when coaching a young CEO, I helped his board affirm five annual SMART goals for their CEO (SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-related). Then we created a simple one-page monthly dashboard report with color-coded bullet points on each goal (green, yellow, red).

On the 15th of every month, the CEO emailed the dashboard to the board. One problem though. The CEO was very reluctant to color-code any "progress" report with yellow or red. (And trust me...most of his ambitious goals were not on target.)

It took several weeks, but I finally convinced this young CEO that his board loved him. They were cheering him on. And they wanted to help him. "All green" sometimes unintentionally communicates to a board, "I have it all under control. I don't need your help."

CEOs: what message (intentional or unintentional) are you broadcasting to your board?

Boards: do you respond appropriately to bad news--so you create a culture that affirms your CEO for delivering bad news early and often?

Recently, I awarded a Starbucks card to a board member who piped up, "You's been a while since our board has heard some really good bad news!"

I love Proverbs 29:2 in The Message: When good people run things, everyone is glad, but when the ruler is bad, everyone groans."

Perhaps a corollary might be, "When good leaders deliver bad news, everyone is glad, but when bad leaders pretend everything is good, everyone groans."

BOARD EXERCISE: How frequently does our CEO deliver bad news? How appropriately does our board respond to bad news?


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.