Community Governance

Kia ora koutou,

Investment in improving the governance of non-government organisations was one of the recommendations of the What is the Future for NGO Governance? report published in September.

One of the interviewees for the report was Jo Brosnahan.  Jo is a professional director with a long history of experience in governance and leadership.  Founding Chair of Leadership New Zealand, Jo’s current governance roles including chairing Maritime New Zealand and Northpower Fibre. In addition to her governance work, Jo’s social business, Leaders for the Future, creates and facilitates leadership programmes for organisations which include IOD, NZ Institute of Logistics and Transport and Local Government NZ.

One of the issues that came up in our interview with Jo was the leadership role chairs play in making board diversity work.  This blog post looks at one of Jo’s recommendations to chairs; build strong working relationships between board members.

Governance, leadership and diversity

Not-for-profit organisations, especially those with a strong ‘social good’ focus, increasingly seek to bring diverse voices to their governance. 

While we recognise the value of different perspectives, bringing these into our governance conversations requires insight into our own ways of thinking. That’s a challenge.  By the time we’re around 30, most of us are becoming set in our thinking. We are conditioned to think in a certain way by our upbringing and our friends and our communities and every experience that we have in our lives.

When you join a board which includes people whose thinking has been shaped by different cultural values, communities and life experiences, you need to be willing to grapple with ways of seeing the world that may be significantly at odds with your own. To get the full benefit of the diversity around the table, board members need to respect each other as individuals, to be able to truly listen, and collectively build understanding and wisdom. That’s where the leadership of the chair is important.

Many traditional governance processes are very transactional, but transformational leadership is needed if boards are to take advantage of diversity round the table. Board chairs have a unique role to play in making diversity work. The chair should take the lead in setting the tone of the board conversation, guiding people to treat each other with dignity, and to make the effort to hear what others are saying.    

In essence, boards are simply a group of people working together for common purpose, and people only work together well when they have respect for each other.  That means creating time for people to build relationships that are not solely based on their interaction at the board table.  In my experience, diverse boards work best when individual board members are given opportunities for social interaction. Time spent getting to know each other is time well-spent. The better you know and trust your fellow board members, the easier it will be for you to have courageous conversations in your governance roles.

In practical terms for a chair, this means setting up your agenda up in such a way that it’s not just transactional. One of the boards I am on, for example, makes a point of spreading its meetings over two days to allow for informal engagement between board members.  We meet in the afternoon, get together for a social event in the evening, then reconvene our meeting in the morning.  The small additional investment of time in building personal connections between board members pays off in terms of the strength and quality of the relationships that we bring collectively to our formal meetings.  It is an investment each of us is happy to make because we are all committed to work successfully across our differences to help build the organisation and effect positive change.  And that is what the best of community governance is all about.