Text of speech given by Alan Broadbent at the May 2011 Social Planning Spring Symposium: “They’re not that into us.”
I want to talk about three things:
- the obligations of governance;
- the tools for good management; and
- managing communications in a volatile media environment.
Very few people understand governance very well. I’ve been a member of boards in business, foundations, NGO’s, charities, and major institutions, and chaired a number of them. Only a minority of my fellow directors or trustees really understood their role. I don’t really blame them, because there was little tutoring of them when they first joined a board, and there is a great deal of misinformation.
I’ve even heard some business school professors offering advice, authoritatively in only the way a b-school prof can muster, that is plain wrong and useless.
Here are some things to think about in governance:
1. When you are a member of a board of an organization, your first duty is to act in the best interests of that organization, whether it is a commercial business, a charity, or an institution. Even if you are on the board because you were nominated by some other organization, your first duty is to the organization of which you are a director or trustee.
So if I’ve been appointed to a university board as a nominee of the faculty, for example, I may find myself in conflict if the board is considering giving faculty minimal salary increases because it would create a deficit in the budget. I would have to consider what is truly in the best interest of the university, not simply what the people who nominated me might want.
If I am an investor in a business and sit on its board, my own interest as an investor might differ from what is good for the company: for example, I might want the company to pay a big annual dividend, but that dividend might cause long-term problems for the company in that it couldn’t invest in things to make it grow, like new equipment or specialized talent. As a director of that company, I would have to suppress my own interest.
2. You are there to govern, not to manage.
Board members have a number of important jobs:
- they appoint and monitor the chief executive;
- they approve the strategy;
- they make sure that the financial reporting of the company represents the truth; and
- they provide general oversight.
They may be asked by management to do other things as well, but these are their central obligations. Some people talk about different kinds of boards, like fundraising boards or managing boards. It may be fine for a board to take on specific responsibilities like fundraising, but not if it conflicts with their central obligations.
The problem with the so-called managing board is its conflict with the oversight role: if the board is managing, who is overseeing the management? This was once described to me as asking the rabbits to guard the lettuce patch.
3. Your job as a board member is to help the organization succeed at its mission.
If you’re going to do that, you need to know what you are going to contribute as a director, and how you’re going to do it. Equally, the organization has to know what it wants of you, and how they’re going to get it from you. Too many organizations don’t have job descriptions for directors, and I don’t mean just a general description, but a specific one for each director, geared to their talents, insights, and experience. At the same time, too few directors ask what is expected of them other than time. Thus an all-too-typical board experience is one of frustration, people not knowing what is expected of them and organizations wondering why the board isn’t more helpful.
Danger signs of this are board meetings which feature management endlessly reporting out, and board members sporadically asking pointed but off-topic questions. A good board meeting is one which focuses on key issues and problems where the board members can provide insight and guidance to management which will move the organization forward.
4. The way you got to be a member of a board is generally the way you stop being a member.
You can always resign, of course, and people do for health or other reasons. But it pays to be clear how you can be removed against your will. If you were elected by shareholders then it is up to the shareholders to remove you. If you were elected by a vote of the board itself, it will take a vote of the board to remove you.
I am a member of the board of Invest Toronto: I was appointed by City Council; for me to be removed would require an action of City Council. In these three examples, it cannot simply be the chair of the board or CEO of the corporation or organization, or a city official who acts to remove a director.
Which raises two questions:
1. Should board members react to external pressure to resign?
The answer goes back to first duty to the interest of the corporation: does the resignation help or hinder, and who is left to defend the corporation? In the Toronto Housing case, some in the Toronto press were demanding board resignations, and saying the board had no other choice.
I would suggest that resigning in such a circumstance is a breach of duty to the corporation, particularly in light of the fact that the board was busy taking remedial action on the key issues in question.
2. How does a board get rid of members it doesn’t want?
The answer is terms, which provide a natural end point for directors who have outlived their usefulness, lost interest, or become problematic. One of the first questions I ask when I agree to go on a board is, “How do I get off this board?” My concern is that I’ll be there forever because they don’t know how to ask me to leave, and I don’t want to disappoint them by leaving, so we have a good-manners standoff.
If governors are going to govern, managers need to be able to manage. And they need to be able to exercise the tools of management, which don’t vary much across the sectors.
An organization needs to be able to hire good people, reward them, motivate them, improve them through training and upgrading, and sever them when their contributions have diminished or ended. It needs to be able to create a good work culture, where people perform at a high level, feel valued, find challenge and enjoyment, and are not subject to negative forces like bullying, harassment, racism, discrimination, or undue hardship. In fact, the work environment needs to be competitive, because good employees will migrate to good workplaces.
So managers need to be able to create a competitive work environment. Now we all know that some can get pretty silly with what they offer employees, especially in the commercial world where I spend much of my time. I’ve seen lots of corporate executives, usually at middle levels in firms, overeating and drinking, larding expense accounts, and being excessive. I’ve seen a lot less of this in government, and little of it in the third sector.
We have an additional complication in the third sector with volunteers. We don’t pay them, but we need to keep them motivated, especially where the work is hard and dispiriting and the conditions difficult.
I don’t need to tell you what all the management tools are. We know them. We could probably all use them better, and most of us have budgets which don’t allow us to use all of them we’d like. How many of us would like to send one of our better employees on a two-week training course because we know how much more effective she’d be, but we can’t afford the fee, or to lose her for two weeks, because our management team is so thin and stretched?
But even if we could, some of us are beginning to wonder if we should. Would it show up in a newspaper story as a boondoggle? There is a chill in the air.
Which brings me to the last things I’d like to say, about the chill in the air.
Managing communications in a volatile media environment
Obviously Toronto Community Housing is in the air.
And E-Health Ontario.
And the search for the gravy train.
If it’s not in the air, it is in the newspapers, some more than others.
In a new era of phony investigative journalism, creating scandal is the new virtue to civic salvation. In an older era, for example when Joseph Atkinson was a big newspaper man in Toronto who operated on the basis of social justice and equity principles, scandal had to be real to make the front page. He’d be rolling in his grave to see how his journalistic followers have set back the health of Ontarians, put social housing at risk, and elected officials who are enemies of progressivism.
When you look at E-Health and Toronto Housing, you can say that managers might have done something different if they knew a volatile press was looking over their shoulder. They might have spent more money by tendering every contract. They might have bought chocolate for volunteers at Costco, even if they cost more and were valued less by the volunteers. They might have had cheese sandwiches and an apple for the holiday lunch, although I suspect the caterer in question has been deluged with business after we all discovered you could get a nice holiday staff lunch for so little per person.
But the press piled on.
When I’ve talked to my friends in the press about this, they say I’m “shooting the messenger”, the favourite blind of journalists. I think that is nonsense, and they’ve seriously lost their way.
But is it their fault, or is it ours?
So I ask you, What’s Your Story?
Because I think we’re not very good at telling our story. I think as a sector, we fail at creating a persuasive narrative of the work we do, either as a sector or as organizations. And it is the latter, our organizational narratives, that I think are the most important.
We do much good work, often in very difficult circumstance, especially those who deal with the hardest problems in the toughest places. And we are so thinly managed and resourced that creating a narrative is always the job we’ll get to later, when the real work is done. And anyway, maybe the people good at doing the hard work aren’t the ones who are good at talking about it.
The problem with not doing it is that we are vulnerable to those who will, perhaps the hysterical and sloppy press we’re getting too used to, perhaps politicians who can ride resentment and distrust to power, perhaps ideologues who want a different world.
When I talk about narrative, I’m not talking about an occasional press release about some report you’ve released, or a grant you got. I’m talking about your mission, and why it’s important, and what you’re doing to fulfill it, and how it is making lives and communities better. In the words of the Social Planning Council, what we’re doing “to improve the quality of life for all people”.
Frank Sharry of America’s Voice was in Toronto recently talking about creating a narrative for change. Frank says the key to creating an effective narrative is “volume and velocity”. By volume he means both amount and loudness. He means that we have to keep our story coming at people so quickly, so regularly, and so audibly that they can’t miss it.
And if they can’t miss it, it is hard for them to distort it.
Obviously we don’t all own our own newspaper or television or radio station. And I think if we had a consensus in this room is would be that the corporate press has not served us well. In fact, with their hysterical and sloppy reporting, they have put some of our best work at risk from time to time. So, despite the presence of some real progressive journalists, relying on the press to tell our story isn’t a very good idea.
Fortunately the new media can help
Sites like The Mark News and Yonge Street are more open to submissions from unusual suspects than the traditional commercial press. Getting a story on The Mark then allows you to do an aggressive social media distribution linking to the story. We often find that when we have a story published in The Mark which we then link through our e-communications and social media, we get much more feedback and higher readership than an op-ed piece in the newspaper.
E-letters like Tamarack’s Engage have a wide distribution, and are open to linking to great community stories. Our Maytree e-letter and bulletins often link to community stories and events. And you can develop your own lists which target the audience you want to reach.
A big thing in communications is regularity. Most of us tend to be sporadic, and even when we use the internet we stick with old newsletter habits of waiting until we have eight or twelve pages of content. We need to get things out fast and frequently. Once a month won’t do anymore.
And we need to take a lesson from newspapers of not “burying our lead”. I’m always dismayed to get an e-bulletin that begins “Welcome to the bulletin of the so-and-so group. If you have trouble reading this open it in your browser”. I’d rather see “New housing opens for disabled in Parkdale” or something that catches my attention and draws me into a story related to the mission of the sender.
But it is time as a sector that we realized that not doing it leaves us vulnerable. It is not enough just to do good work, unfortunately. We have to be seen to be doing good work, and we have to create a continuing positive narrative that can protect us against these hysterical attacks.
It is, of course, a great thing to have flawless and comprehensive governance performance, to have meticulous and waste-free management combined with exemplary human resource development practices. But to have the good work we do undermined by the odd mistake or lapse is a lot more difficult if the available narrative of who we are and what we do is powerful, positive, and hard to miss.
For too long we’ve seen creating such positive narratives as the job we’ll get to next, as a frill, or as unseemly boasting. We need to get over that, or we’ll continue to pay the price of being misrepresented, under-valued, and maligned.
So, What’s Your Story?
It’s time to tell your story.