Reflecting on this year’s March Madness tournament, I am struck by the parallels between our athletic teams and governing boards. It is the work of the team—and the skills and talents of individuals—that drive success and results. Communication, trust, and division of labor are requirements of each endeavor.
Even though trustees don’t don uniforms and compete against other fiduciary bodies, their decisions yield tangible wins and losses for an institution.
One lesson we can take from this year’s tournament is the power of a highly effective team in overcoming the odds. The University of Maryland Baltimore County’s (UMB) win over the University of Virginia was historic in that it was the first time a 16-seed defeated a 1-seed. The power of this team, rather than its individual players, allowed it to shine. UMBC isn’t known for its basketball program, but its victory this March is a Cinderella story that will be remembered well beyond this season.
Governing boards, in contrast, are stacked with top talent: high-powered business people, lawyers, and other professionals with expertise and demonstrated success. In a room full of all-stars, the culture can be dominated by individuals jockeying for influence or position rather than working collaboratively.
Is your board characterized by strategic engagement or is it a bunch of benchwarmers?
An unhealthy board culture can at best impede institutional success and at worst inflict institutional harm. Edgar Schein, organizational development expert and former professor at MIT, described culture as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group.” These patterns are developed intentionally or by default. Proactively managing culture through a statement of board member expectations, regular board and individual assessment, and meaningful accountability puts a board in the position to fully leverage all its talents and have its own “bracket busting” successes in service of their mission.