The significance of board culture--the norms that define acceptable behavior by trustees and how to improve them--has become a popular notion recently, but the concept is not new. The momentum behind the board culture movement owes not only to the power of the idea, but also to the limitations of other reforms.
Changes in structure and operations have produced greater efficiency, but problems like disengagement, dysfunction, and misconduct persist. What then, do boards do?
Higher education boards have become more attentive to board culture and some are challenging, for the better, deeply held assumptions about how they operate and what their ultimate role and purpose are.
- Healthy boards are marked by:
- Distributed influence
- Collective wisdom
- Open-minded listeners
- Constructive dissent
- Respect and trust
- Clear expectations
- Mutual accountability
In pursuit of a healthy culture, boards have had candid, sometimes difficult dialogues about disparities between current and ideal conditions and the best means to close the gaps. These discussions have yielded fruitful results, for instance: explicit rules of engagement; intensified efforts to elicit broad participation and diverse views; and more frequent, more immediate feedback loops on board dynamics and board performance.
Boards that ignore a dysfunctional culture, abide the status quo, and focus on artifacts rather than assumptions will pay a steep price: mediocre governance at best and abysmal performance at worst.