The Essentials of Board Alignment
Great alignment is fundamental to the success of any team. Look at a winning sports team, and you see common traits: They are coordinated, self-aware, and most important, aligned around goals, strategies, and tactics. The same is true of boards. Members of a high-performing board, like members of an athletic team, have complementary skills that add up to more than the sum of those parts, as long as everyone is aligned around a common vision and goals.
Alignment is paramount. While diverse expertise and different perspectives are invaluable to a board, diversity naturally introduces tension, too. After all, diversity means people see things differently, perhaps want different types of information, and likely see different opportunities and solutions. How do you make that tension constructive? Alignment is the key. At the core, a board and management team need to align around a common purpose, vision for success, and agreed-upon strategy that fuels momentum and brings out the best in a diverse group of individuals acting as a team for the benefit of an organization.
So, how do you achieve this alignment? It’s often easier said than done. Here are the fundamental elements that boards need in place to foster alignment.
Confirm your shared vision for long-term success
Before anything else, it’s critical that your board align behind a shared vision, and that the vision is long term. Having a shared vision is critical to your accountability as a board member and enables you to contribute to the board’s success. That big picture vision needs to be reinforced with a mission statement. Ideally, all board and management team members know it or know exactly where to find it.
Hone your mission statement
The mission statement sets the board’s purpose at a high level and underlies any goals you set for the organization and strategies to achieve them. Keep a few important things in mind when confirming everyone’s understanding of the mission statement:
- There’s no room for ambiguity; if the mission statement is vague or includes potentially competing ideas, ask clarifying questions to resolve
- Be mindful of differences in opinion or interpretation and try to resolve them
- Identify not only what the mission is, but (where helpful) what it is not
It’s good practice to periodically reconfirm your mission.
Make decisions through the lens of the mission
Always seek to understand how a decision or strategic initiative reflects or enhances the organization’s mission? If it does neither, reconsider your plan.
Set long-term goals to guide your work
It’s essential to your ongoing alignment that the board and management set long-term goals and use them as the North Star that guides your work. How long-term? Set a timeframe that everyone agrees is consistent with the vision, then set milestones along the way. And don’t be afraid to course correct if needed; things can change, and an original goal or milestone may no longer be in the in the organization’s best interest.
Success in the near- and medium-term plays a big part in accomplishing that long-term set of goals. Challenge objectives that place short-term benefit over long-term gain. This means being able to accept unfavorable results if you know they are a necessary step to achieve the long-term goal. Your guidance should support the mission and the success of long-term goals.
Align around strategy
Alignment around strategy is critical. The board’s role in setting strategy varies by organizations. In some companies, the CEO sets strategy, with the board’s approval. In others (often earlier stage companies or nonprofits), the board plays a bigger role in setting strategy. Regardless of who proposes it, the board always needs to approve major strategic initiatives. There are two good reasons:
- It’s a missed opportunity for the CEO not to get the board’s insights on any major initative
- The board is ultimately accountable if things don’t go as planned.
Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate
Not everyone will see things the same way on a diverse board. So it’s essential for individual board members to be active listeners; to be open minded; and to strive to see the value of other perspectives. This doesn’t mean you have to roll over easily. You can make your case. But also know how to set aside your personal opinion when the collective wisdom is going in a different direction. As a board member, it’s your responsibility to embrace the board’s decision, even when it hasn’t gone your way. Learning to do so with grace is an essential skill for maintaining board alignment.
Align and move forward
A board that isn’t well aligned has a hard time getting much done. Like a team that is working off different playbooks or pulling in opposite directions, a board that hasn’t aligned around its core vision, mission, and goals quickly finds that it is stymied in its attempts to make progress and add value. A lack of alignment can lead to frustration, apathy, competing factions, and a host of other issues that can thwart a board’s ability to be successful. It’s worth taking the time and making whatever effort is necessary to reach alignment, as it is the true foundation from which all a board’s key duties can be accomplished.
Alignment and the Governance Curve
Alignment is the baseline upon which a board begins its evolution from meeting its most basic responsibilities to contributing at a highly strategic level. It’s a huge factor in moving up the Governance Curve.
To learn more about the Governance Curve and how to level up your board, download the ebook, The Governance Curve: A New Way to Think About Board Success.
(Photo by Engin Akyurt on Unsplash)