Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Governance--Emerging from a Tribal State

By Steven Worth

Typically organizations spend way too much time, worry and effort parsing how their multiple constituencies will be represented in their various governance and operational bodies.  It is a thankless task where the end result usually is a state of tense political gamesmanship and/or stalemate as one group of constituent interests warily faces off against another.  Some people enjoy such games—most do not; and those in the middle usually are reduced to exasperated cynicism about the whole process. 

Ever since our Eighteenth Century call to arms-- No taxation without representation!--we have been trapped in the mindset that no organization can be truly democratic unless all recognizable constituencies have a seat at the governing table.  But in this new era of Internet-based communities it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine whose team anyone is on.  Do you feel a certain way just because you live in Michigan, or because you work in a certain industry, or perform a certain job or practice a certain profession?--perhaps so, but increasingly not. 

Traditional lines that used to be convenient for determining which “side” people are on are blurring.  Slowly nations and people and communities are emerging from our ancient tribal states—call it “the pursuit of happiness,” a concept made famous by another famous Eighteenth Century document—thanks in no small part to the freedom the Internet has provided us.  In this evolving environment, overarching strategic purpose becomes key—much more so than the traditional identification by geographic location.  It is what draws people and companies to membership organizations and it is what motivates them as donors and engaged members. 

So what does “representation” mean in this new environment?  I suggest that when it comes to board representation the primary criteria are and should be the background and skills set of the people on the board—do they help advance the organization’s strategy and the strategic goals that are part of that strategy?  This is the only question that matters, everything else is or should be subordinate to that. 

For the organizations that have the best governance models, service on their board of directors is considered a privilege, not a right based on what industry segment or geography one comes from.  If the organization’s strategy is achieved then everyone is happy.  Strategy is unquestionably predominant.  Board members are selected primarily on their ability to advance that strategy.  The reasoning goes, “You may not be in my segment of the industry, but if you are helping to achieve the strategy that I deem important then what does it matter where you come from?”  There is a general recognition within these groups that not all people are able to accomplish the work that must be done—so leadership selection should be focused solely on finding those abilities and leadership characteristics that are important for the successful accomplishment of the organization’s strategy.  When the strategy of the whole becomes subordinate to personal or traditional “tribal” interests based on more narrowly defined criteria, then traditional “politics” take over--and that is increasingly unacceptable to the great majority of people who want and expect something better.   

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