I should probably start by saying that I’ve never held a Board Member position; at least, not yet anyway. I have, however, spent (a lot of) time preparing papers, reports and governance strategies for Boards. They have been for various activities, such as large transformation programs or (de)mergers / acquisitions. Doing so had enabled me to work first-hand with Executive and Non-Executive Directors, but also with the teams in delivery.
Boards need help
I appreciate that, for the most part, a Board Director’s role is challenging and important. Often, a board member attends five-six meetings a year (for each board they are part of), where they are presented well thought out and well-presented information by people who are on their best behaviour. They may then spend time discussing certain issues or asking questions (often high level) to those presenting, who will ensure that the information they share is exactly as its been crafted up the line to get to this point.
What you don’t know, and what you can do about it
After spending a considerable amount of time in leadership positions myself, that are primarily focused on governance and oversight on large transformation programs and other large project portfolios, I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly. I also know that many Board Directors are very experienced leaders, who often come from operational roles, not from the delivery realm of Project & Programs or this new thing called ‘Agile’. So, here’s a few things you should know (to sort the lies from the bullshit):
- Protecting the bonus, team performance is hidden – Some people spend so much time preparing information that favours their team’s performance, regardless of whether the reality differs; hiding it from sight. I suggest that team performance is not self-measured, but rather peer reviewed at random across the organisation.
- Information is being altered up the line – In a rush to prepare information, which can often take the full 6-8 weeks between Board Meetings, information will often become outdated and altered so heavily that you end up with a presentation that is far from the truth. I suggest, in this more agile world (in terms of agility), ask teams to explain progress, bring in key personnel to share insights and answer questions, and open conversations. Forget the old-fashioned PowerPoint approach.
- Governance gone rogue – After you’ve been presented a pretty picture on how the program / department is going to deliver effective governance and oversight, I suggest ask them to demonstrate how they will measure the effectiveness, and to provide ongoing updates against those variables of which they will measure ongoing. After all, what can’t be measured, can’t be managed. Right?
- Proactive not Reactive – You are expected to understand what’s going on in the company, not react to what’s presented to you, therefore you need to ensure you have adequate, accurate information; proactively presented in a consistent way without the jargon, ‘fluff’ and should present real value that’s short and succinct. I suggest challenging the information presented to you. Select teams or departments at random to demonstrate to you, working backwards, on how they expect to meet such governance and oversight controls.
- Reputation is important – You may not realise, but there is still a lot of bullying going on in organisations. This is, without doubt, contributing to the mental health rise. I suggest spending time to understand how your organisation is being seen or spoken about in the market. Use this information to help drive actions that improves your organisational culture. Understand how people are treating each other.
- Beware the watermelon projects (programs and portfolios) – That is, projects that appear green on the outside, but are all red on the inside. No organisation is immune. I’d even go as far as saying that there are more watermelons in an organisation than you would find at your local fruit shop! I suggest that the mechanisms for rating project status are well-defined, that provide accurate and reflective historical trends that are randomly and independently stress-tested.
Dear Boards, you need help
Different boards, and roles within these boards, have different purposes. However, I think we can all agree that Boards are also there for governance. In many companies, the various challenges will vary in complexity. Although what is certain is the fact that every organisation is running projects and programs.
Boards should not simply be a check-in-the-box function, but more an opportunity to pressure-test governance and the performance against previously agreed metrics. They should also ensure that their ‘homework’ is done, and not accept everything they see at face value.
At the end of the day, I’m still not a Board Member. I could still be completely wrong, and all of this could be irrelevant. But, considering my personal experience, these are some of the real problems I believe exist.