Your Governing Board's Next Agenda

July 15, 2002 · by James P. Cramer

It is the board that is in a key position to provide focus and set priorities. But often the board remains a mysterious, hidden resource to the creative enterprise. This can be easy to correct.

Firm principals may quickly forget the hidden power of their board of directors. Beyond making policy for the firm, the board can reinforce the unique culture of your whole creative enterprise. You have no doubt heard the saying “If you don’t know where you’re going, you could end up anywhere.” It is the board that is in a key position to provide focus and set priorities. But often the board remains a mysterious, hidden resource to the creative enterprise. This can be easy to correct.

A well functioning governing board can create a collective positive focus and clear vision to benefit the design firm’s culture.

The board agenda should include more than financial and compensation matters. Meetings should reinforce vision, responsibility and accountability on what matters most to the future of the organization. Board members should understand their meetings can and will shape the future of their design enterprise. While some firms’ boards meet monthly and others bi-monthly, even those that meet quarterly can exercise real leadership. Some boards post perfect attendance year after year – others rarely achieve it. If your board is in the latter category, a huge opportunity is being wasted because of the board’s unique position to demonstrate collective leadership and vision. Here is a sample agenda to rebuild flagging boards:

1. Always review previous board minutes and actions. This reinforces the importance of knowing where the organization has been and what continuity can mean to today’s decisions.

2. Revisit your vision. At each meeting give 15 minutes to roundtable discussion, allowing each board member to state how recent action and behavior relate to the firm’s vision. Never skip this agenda item.

3. Present and discuss the financial health of your organization. Don’t just use traditional metrics but instead build your own in terms that will define your desired condition. Don’t benchmark against old issues, old approaches, and old views of what’s important.

4. Present and discuss processes that define you. Remember that clients define design firm value according to how well their processes work. It is process that makes a firm unique – the hidden value proposition and the trade secrets that are anti-commodity in nature. If you think your final building or product defines you for clients, you are less than half right.

5. Focus on clients. Review your list of current clients and determine as best you can how satisfied each is with the services they are getting. Ask: are we giving our clients what they really want?

6.Discussion on collaboration. If collaboration is on each agenda, you will begin to knock down the barriers to teamwork. Let the whole firm know that the board intends to hold everyone from top to bottom accountable for working together well.

7. Prepare for uncertainty. Firms that build a capacity for change and transformation are resilient. They know the future is unpredictable but also recognize they can be certain of new opportunities ahead. Institutionalize a culture of preparedness.

8. Set the next meeting date and reinforce the importance of attendance. Expect perfect attendance.

Afterward, provide minutes to each board member within two days. Running a design firm may not be easy, but firms can win at the business of design through governance, leadership, and attitude. Use your board to get serious about success – by policy.

– James P. Cramer

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