In this series on good governance, I have thus far stressed the critical role governance plays in the success or failure of any college and urged that boards get serious about assessing their effectiveness. Working from the assertion that good governance requires that the board itself must own the responsibility and make provision for high functioning, we examined the essential role of written policies addressing the board’s culture, conduct, and commitments; ways to optimize board composition and continuity; and the importance of a board committee empowered to assess and improve the board’s individual and collective performance. I say again, good governance begins with board ownership.
What common board flaws have in common
Remember John Carver’s list of typical governance flaws?
- Time on trivia
- Short term bias
- Reactive (vs. proactive)
- Leaky accountability
- Ambiguous authority
I invite you to notice what the first three flaws have in common: a focus on means rather than ends. Great boards distinguish between means and ends. They ensure that they do not obsess over means to the neglect of ends. They insist on clarity and consensus about mission, values and vision and they regularly re-visit and re-validate them. They evaluate means in light of ends. They screen their agendas, prioritize their engagement, allocate their time, frame their issues, craft their policies, and limit their solutions in terms of ends rather than means. I invite you to look with me at each of these ends-related board responsibilities over the next several posts. Let’s begin with mission.
Keeping the main thing the main thing
Mission answers the questions why, who and what. Why does your college exist? Whom does your college serve? What does your college do for the people it serves in order to fulfill your purpose? It is not my intention here to offer guidance as to how to craft a mission statement. If you need help, contact me and I’ll point you to some excellent resources.
For now, I will assume you have a clear mission statement. The relevant governance question is: Does your mission statement actively function to filter and focus the work of your college?
I am thinking of two recent inquiries I received from ABHE colleges. A president wrote me to ask what percentage of ABHE colleges practice “open” admissions (i.e., admit students regardless of their profession of Christian faith or discipleship). A trustee inquired about a merger proposal with another college. Both of these matters are critical mission questions. I am not advocating in this forum for a particular solution in either case. But I am pointing out that good governance requires that the board recognize and address such questions, not in pragmatic terms of challenges or opportunities, but in terms of mission alignment and fulfillment.
Mission statements are not static but they must never be regarded as transitory or inconsequential. Chris Horst and Peter Greer, in their outstanding book, Mission Drift, cite the example of the Crowell Trust that begins every meeting by reading aloud the foundation’s charter. Maybe your board should adopt the habit of reciting the mission statement at the beginning of every meeting. However you do it, you will elevate the work of your board and intensify the thrust of your institution if you will commit to governance dispositions and practices that make your mission statement the means to filter and focus your work.
A board focus on ends begins (no pun intended) with its focus upon the mission statement. But there is more to ends orientation. Next time I’ll offer some questions great boards use to filter their agendas and guide their issue engagement.
Fresh gleanings to fuel your leadership awareness, reflection, and conversations …
Former Tyndale University College (ON) President, Brian Stiller, now serves as World Evangelical Alliance Global Ambassador. You’ll want to read Brian’s sober, yet hopeful observations regarding spiritual conditions in Venezuela—and you may want, as I have, to subscribe to Brian’s periodic dispatches as he travels the world to observe and encourage the people of God.
God has entrusted Bill Hybels with enormous leadership insight from which I have benefitted many times. In this interview about his book, Simplify, Hybels asserts, “If you sustain unsafe levels of speed long enough, something terrible is going to happen. It’s not going to be a matter of getting a headache some day and having to lie down for a while. It’s going to be much worse than that.” My fellow leaders, take time to read and heed this counsel—please.