The Power of What Cannot Be Seen

It's not what boards do (or don't do) but how they do their work that really matters, say Peter Eckel and Cathy Trower.

April 28, 2016

Governing boards are dynamic groups of individuals where, sometimes, the whole does not equal the sum of its parts. Presidents want and need their boards to be active, productive and engaged assets for the college, university or state system that they govern. Yet too many boards underperform. We argue that it is not what boards do (or don’t do) but how they do their work that really matters.

Consider these examples of poor board behavior:

  • The perennially underengaged board asks few questions of the administration and fewer of themselves;
  • The overly powerful executive committee controls 85 percent of the agenda and excludes other trustees; and,
  • The impulsive board quickly moves to decisions without divergent or devil’s advocate thinking.

We think that educating boards on what they should do -- their roles and responsibilities -- while important, is insufficient. In actuality, underperforming boards may know their roles but have cultures that limit their effectiveness. Board culture, those patterns of behavior and ways of understanding that are deeply ingrained, reinforced and taught to new trustees, is what demands attention.

Rather than tinker with board structure, such as the size of the board (the large boards wishing they were smaller and the small boards thinking they should be larger), or the number and size of committees, board leaders and presidents should work to ensure a healthy board culture. It has been said that culture eats structure and strategy for lunch, and we agree. But culture is much more elusive and difficult to explain succinctly, making it challenging to expose and act upon.

We have been working with several boards to describe, measure and analyze their cultures and then ask if that culture fits the institution’s environment, current context and the work facing the board. Boards are complex social systems they have norms, expectations and preferred ways of working. Some of the norms are explicit (attendance), and others are implicit (comportment). Such normative elements are the building blocks of board culture. A proverbial fish in water syndrome, culture is difficult to see objectively for those immersed in it. By making the normative behaviors and interaction explicit, we can make culture actionable and create a road map for aligning culture with needs.

In our research, we’ve identified several important dimensions of board culture, such as the extent to which:

  • influence is consolidated in the hands of a few trustees or widely dispersed across the board,
  • the board sees itself more as a cheerleader or critic,
  • the board has an academic mind-set versus a corporate one, and,
  • the board seeks diverging and diverse views rather than preferring to move quickly to consensus.

These cultural dimensions are continuums with a matched partner at the other end.

Cultural factors such as these and others in our framework have both positive and negative aspects. Think about the classic Myers-Briggs introvert-extrovert scale as a parallel. Being introverted or extroverted, on its face, is neither good nor bad; rather, it depends on the context and the ways in which the strengths and blind spots play themselves out for an individual. Still, it is helpful for individuals to understand their natural tendencies and preferences. We believe that the same is true for boards as they rate themselves on dimensions of culture.

For example, think about a large board, in a highly dynamic situation, where it needs to make decisions quickly. This board, and its president, may be well served by a board culture that has consolidated influence. A few highly respected and good board leaders are able to respond quickly.

But on the flip side, a board that has consolidated influence and needs widespread input to understand novel and complex situations confronting the institution may exclude key members who have much to add. If a small group of trustees dominates all board work, takes up the most airtime during board meetings, shapes all agendas and even talks over other trustees, why would others participate? Consolidated influence may drive trustee disengagement for some boards.

At the same time, however, boards with distributed influence may micromanage. A larger board with a lot of trustees may not have enough substance in their board work, so hungry people are looking for more engagement and can easily cross the murky line into operations.

The one exception we are exploring to the notion of cultural continuums (again, think Myers-Briggs) relates to how board members treat each other, or what we call comportment. For instance, having more trust among board members is better than less, having more respect for one another and one another’s contributions is healthier than animosity, and being more openly deliberative in meetings is more desirable than having off-line conversations or “parking lot meetings” (that occur after the board meeting as trustees head to their cars).

Understanding the cultural explanations of common board problems can be helpful for board leaders and presidents. Some of those problems include:

  • overly inclusive processes in which boards cannot make decisions (death by discussion). For example, we know of a board that could not move on approval of the tuition increase recommended by the administration because they continued to debate the issue at a series of meeting, putting the tuition-dependent institution at a disadvantage when the freshman recruitment cycle began.
  • a board that is overly clubby and deferential to the president (the in-the-pocket board).One board found itself in difficulty when the president didn’t share all of the institution’s financial situation; instead some trustees eventually found out about it from faculty with whom they sang in the church choir.
  • a board that jumps to decisions too quickly (the knee-jerk board) One board found itself with a parcel of real estate in another state that became burdensome because it quickly accepted a gift from a longtime supporter even though there was neither a plan nor purpose for it.

In these cases, knowing better the roles and responsibilities of good governance might not have thwarted the problems. Instead, the culture of the board contributed, allowing these issues to snowball.

Here are some key questions that start to capture board culture:

  • To what extent does the board have a corporate mind-set or an academic one? Is it mission or market driven?
  • Is influence consolidated or distributed?
  • What is the level of trust within the board and between the administration and the board?
  • Does the board have a disposition toward efficiency or deliberation?

A cultural lens to the work of boards can explain many things. But the real benefit is having the language to make elements of culture visible and thus actionable. Once boards have the means to understand their own culture, the subsequent work should focus on the extent to which the board’s culture is aligned with the demands of the environment in which the institution and the board has to work and the nature of the challenges it faces. The cultural profiles of boards suggest that they may be well suited for some work and some situations but ill prepared for other situations. Knowing these can be extremely important to ensure ongoing board effectiveness. Too many boards get caught by the blind spots and shortcomings of their cultures.

Helping the board and the president understand the board’s strengths and potential vulnerabilities is essential to making culture actionable. They can then have meaningful conversations about the board culture they have and whether or not it is working well in the current (and future) context, think about what changes to culture might be helpful, and develop strategies to act on them. Changing the culture of a board may not be as problematic as changing the culture of an institution. The relatively small size of the board, the ability of the board chair to set new expectations and norms, and the infrequency with which boards meet mean that with attention and intention they can adopt new cultural norms and expectations. In addition, board turnover can be used to advantage, because institutions can cultivate and orient trustees who fit the desired culture.

A board culture profile provides a road map to align board dynamics with the work the board needs to accomplish, the president’s leadership style and the institution’s context. One sample profile from our pilot effort includes the following dimensions along the five continuums. The board:

  • Has distributed influence across the members of the board;
  • Seeks to maximize efficiency in how it conducts its work;
  • Has divergent thinking, prizing multiple perspectives and critical thinking;
  • Has an academic mind-set in that it understands the academy; and,
  • Views its role as partnering with the administration.

One potential vulnerability of this board is that for the sake of efficiency, time is not well organized to ensure both sufficient involvement and a breadth of issues. The concern may not be one of time management, but the way in which time is allocated to issues. Does the board address sufficient substance? Could it be covering more issues if it altered its culture and meeting structure? These questions seem to be on the minds of board and administrative leaders at this university as they seek to add substantive discussions to board meetings.

Board culture has been called “the invisible director” for the influence it creates, both positive and negative. The real goal of understanding board culture and its influence on how boards work can put governance on the pathway toward increased effectiveness. It is making sure that invisible director is moving the board in the right and positive direction.


Peter Eckel is a senior fellow and the director of leadership programs at the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy in the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and a trustee at the University of La Verne. Cathy Trower is president of Trower & Trower Inc., a board governance consulting firm, and a trustee at Wheaton College, Mass.

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