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Putting Your Policies to Work

By: Ralph Kikkert, Consulting Partner, STRIVE! Inc.

You can save time and energy by developing
governing policies for effective decision-making.

Corporate and not-for-profit boards are taking advantage of the power of policy. Rather than making decisions on an issue-by-issue basis, progressive boards are developing and compiling governing policies that provide a framework for ongoing decision-making.  This board-developed governance oversight directs the actions of everyone in the organization in a consistent and efficient manner.

The benefits? No more fluttering through paper or files when a director says, “Didn’t we make a decision on a matter just like this about three years ago?” The board can turn to its ever-present policy handbook instead of searching through old minutes or rehashing issues if past decisions can’t be found. Finally, the board will not have to call special meetings to deal with new issues that arise within the agency.

Here’s a list of some guidelines to help you and your board make positive progress toward establishing effective policies. 

Invest the time and resources to become a policy board. It will give your organization clear direction every day, whether the board has just met or not. It is surprisingly common to hear senior managers respond to everyday situations by saying, “We’ll have to wait and see what the board thinks.” Managers are hired for their wisdom and expertise and will be more confident and effective when the board already has policies that indicate its “thinking” on many matters.

For this reason, it is important to set aside a day or two, if necessary, to put a foundational set of policies in place. This is most efficiently accomplished using a good set of sample policies as a starting point. A facilitator may also be used to draw out the board’s shared thinking on the breadth of issues and keep the process moving forward. 

Use policies to direct and protect the organization. This requires a certain amount of balance. If your policies are too prescriptive or too constrictive, your staff will have a hard time accomplishing organizational goals. The clearer the goals and the better the communication of these directions, the more effectively staff can channel its energies towards the achievement of the stated goals. Staff is empowered to be innovative and creative in its work and will often exceed the expectations of the board and organization. At the same time, staff is held accountable to meet the goals and follow the limits set by the board.

Keep the big picture in mind when writing policy. Boards are the ‘guardian of the vision’ not the dictators of detail and be careful to confine board policy to governance issues, not operational issues. A board that is too hands-on tends to have long, frequent board meetings. These boards believe their role is to direct the daily or weekly work of staff. As a result, employees are discouraged from using the wisdom and skills for which they were originally hired and become totally dependent on the board for all minor decisions, which creates bureaucracy and inefficiencies. Approvals and input from board members on little details become the organizational culture. This creates an organization with limited impact, reduced competitiveness, high staff turnover, ineffective use of resources and increased board expenses.    

Another good tip is to make policies concise and only record what you believe must be a written policy. The longer your set of policies becomes, the less likely it will be that directors and managers actually know them. Policies that are too procedural or lengthy run the risk of becoming strict directives that overly limit staff’s ability to do its job. Good policy should allow the board to delegate to management and staff the authority to complete tasks.

When assessing whether a policy has been followed, reflect on the “spirit” intended in the policy and make decisions appropriately. Also, feel free to change policies as needed to enable the organization to follow the intent of the policy when exceptions arise or the policy is motivating actions that are not quite right.

Remember that policy is a communication tool to articulate intentions, directions, and expectations. It is the board’s job to provide direction to the organization to enable efficient and effective use of staff and resources. Additionally, it is the board’s responsibility to set limits of what not to do. When boards establish limits, staff members are able to be innovative, creative and major players in the success of the organization. When employees take initiatives within these limits, they generate quality results for the organization. Strong boards realize appropriate staff members are critical and empower them to fulfil the objectives of the organization.

Finally, make it a priority to review your governing policies annually to ensure they remain relevant for the organization and top-of-mind for the directors. The primary role of any board is to act as direction-setter, with employees as the capable implementers. With this acknowledgment in place, appropriate policies can be set, progress can be made, and you will become masters of the policies of your organization.

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