Oops! Tension Between Clarity and Generative Thinking!

By John Pearson

First, my confession. I chaired a board meeting recently and later discovered that our board’s brainstorming (sometimes a good cover for meddling!) ended without clarity on the staff’s next steps.

A recent
ECFA governance survey of almost 2,500 CEOs, board chairs and board members noted that of the three aspects of governance: fiduciary, strategic, and generative—all three segments rated their “generative governance effectiveness” significantly lower than the other two aspects.

The authors of
Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards, Richard P. Chait, William P. Ryan, and Barbara E. Taylor, describe “generative governance” as:
• being often overlooked,
• a broader re-imagining of the organization's nature and role in light of emerging trends,
• and, where board members also explore "opportunities to be a source of leadership as well as a source of advice, expertise, and fundraising."

It’s a delicate dance, a fine line, a slippery slope (insert your favorite metaphor here). But as the authors note, “…in their ‘day jobs’ as managers, professionals, or leaders of organizations, trustees routinely rely on generative thinking, so much so they have no need to name it or analyze it. They just do it. But in the boardroom, trustees are at a double disadvantage. Most boards do not routinely practice generative thinking.”

They add,

“When it comes to generative governing,
most trustees add too little, too late.”

So…at that board meeting, while we had fun with generative thinking, the staff probably saw it as “sensible foolishness” (another way the authors describe the term).

At the next board meeting, I apologized for the confusion and suggested to our board members that whenever we go down the generative thinking path, we conclude the mental hike with crystal clarity. If an action item or policy change does not make it into the minutes, then the staff will conclude that there was no harm/no foul.

Our goal, always, is that great line from Policy Governance® Guru
John Carver, “The board speaks with one voice or not at all.” And I would add, “and with properly documented minutes.”

As I reflected on the meeting, I sensed a nudge from the Lord, asking that while one apology was good and needed—why had it been so long since the last time I had apologized to the CEO, the staff, or the board?

Scott Rodin reminds us in his powerful book,
The Steward Leader: Transforming People, Organizations and Communities, “If I could put one Bible verse on the desk of every pastor and every Christian leader in the world, it would be this: ‘If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us’ (1 John 1:8).” Yikes.

QUESTIONS: When your board adjourns, is your CEO and senior staff crystal clear on next steps—or has fuzzy dialogue replaced well-written action items? And, when is the last time someone apologized in 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.