WHAT IS TRUSTEE JUDGMENT, PART I. . .

Greenleaf writes: What is trustee judgment? It is a meld of the following unique aspects of the role of trustee: (1) trustees have the perspective of detachment that no insider can have; (2) they have their own information source that equips them for their special functions; they are free from the pressures and minutia of day-to-day operations so that they can take an overview as well as project the future; (3) trustees do not have a career stake in the institution – their motivation can be less self-centered; (4) effective trustees stand as symbols of trust; therefore they can provide a shelter of legitimacy in a way that deeply committed insiders cannot; (5) because trustees are not colleagues who may have contending interests, they can function creatively as a group on issues that internal constituencies may not be able to resolve; (6) trustees are better able to have a sense of history, past-present-future, and therefore are better able to hold the institution’s vision and keep it steady, and they may better see the path to survival and long service; (7) trustees can keep the concept of ultimate purpose in sharp focus and hold it up as a guide at times when the insiders are hard pressed to stay afloat from day to day.

How consistent are trustees when it comes to ‘detachment’?  How many trustees actually demonstrate non-detachment?  In order to respond to these two questions the concept of ‘detachment’ needs to be defined.  Who defines the concept for trustees?  My unabridged dictionary offers the following definition: freedom from prejudice or partiality.  Given this definition how would a trustee respond to my two questions?  If you, gentle reader, are a trustee how would you, given my definition, respond to the two questions?

How many boards of trustees actually have their own information source – separate from the administrators and staff?  How many boards believe it is important to have their own information source?  Why might it be important (crucial?) for boards to have their own information source?

‘Detachment’ and ‘information’ might allow the board to ‘take an overview’ (look at the organization from a balcony perspective) for they are not to be involved in the ‘dance’ itself.  How many trustees leave the ‘balcony’ and engage in the ‘dance’?  Why might the trustees do this? 

Because trustees are to be ‘detached’ and because they do not have a career stake in the institution they are able to be less ‘self-centered.’  On the other hand, how many trustees do have a ‘career stake’ in the institution?  That is, if the institution performs at a high level how many trustees actually benefit – for example, their own resumes are enhanced? 

Trustees are ‘symbols.’  Some are ‘symbols of trust’ and others are ‘symbols of inappropriate meddling.’  How often do trustees actually seek to be awake and aware of the symbols they project?  How intentional and purpose-full are trustees when it comes to defining the symbols they project? 

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WHAT IS WANTED. . .

Greenleaf writes: what is wanted is a fresh analysis of trustee information needs and a design of presentations that are carefully tailored to facilitate the specific judgments and decisions trustees will make.

Carefully and imaginatively designed trustee information will serve three ancillary purposes: (1) It will provide a constant influence to focus attention on clearly designated trustee functions and help prevent involvement with administrative matters. (2) It will provide a structure of knowledge about the function of trustees that will make possible explicit training for the trustee role. (3) It will help make service as a trustee rewarding involvement for the kind of people who should be trustees and it will justify a greater time investment than trustees normally make.  Furthermore, it will facilitate recruiting the right people as trustees. 

Providing information to trustees on the basis suggested here is difficult…  And it clearly signals a new ‘initiating’ role for trustees as contrasted with the usual ‘reacting’ role in which trustees are ‘nominal.’ 

An ongoing challenge for many trustees is for them to clearly define their ‘trustee function.’  A corollary challenge is to help trustees resist the temptation to meddle in operations (this ‘meddling’ is usually done by coercing, manipulating, persuading or influencing the chief administrators; these are usually carried out by one or two board members and occurs because the board refuses to adopt the rule of ‘one voice.’).   A second ongoing challenge is for boards to intentionally and purpose-fully orient, educate and develop new trustees.  During the past 41 years I have only known ONE BOARD that did this well.  The reasons that boards resist this process are legion – if you, gentle reader want to know some of them simply ask a current or past board member why their board does not engage in this important preparation. 

I have known boards that consciously sought out board members who were ‘passionate’ about the organization and who believed it was an honor to serve and who found ‘serving’ in this way to be highly rewarding.  These were, for the most part, high performing boards.  Sadly, I have also known two boards that moved away from this type of ‘recruiting’ and began to settle for folks who wanted to be on a board so they could put it on their resume.  Within a few years, both of these boards functioned so poorly that the organizations imploded and went out of existence. 

I have found that boards rooted in ‘good governance’ tended to be ‘initiating boards’ and boards that were rooted in ‘ritual’ and/or ‘operations’ tended to be ‘reactive boards.’  I have also found that the larger the board the more reactive it tended to be – a 40+ person board is not willing to take the time and spend the energy in order to be ‘initiating’ – it is easier for them to become ‘reactive.’ 

It might be helpful for a board to take the time and evaluate itself in relation to Greenleaf’s three statements – of course they will have to initiate this, and this for too many trustees, is a challenge in itself.

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WHO WILL SECURE THE INFORMATION. . .

Greenleaf writes: Who will secure the information for the trustees?  One of the functions of the chairman is to see that the trustees are properly informed…

How shall trustee information be presented and utilized?  By a minimum of written material and a maximum of oral-visual presentation to trustees as a group.  The reason for this choice is that trustees are a deliberative body and information should be designed to give them what they need for the decisions they must make…and to facilitate a group decision out of discussion.

In order to determine whether a chairman ‘sees that the trustees are properly informed’ one must define what ‘properly informed’ means.  Who defines ‘properly informed’?  How many boards agree that ‘one of the functions of the chairman is to see that the trustees are properly informed’

Greenleaf’s next question is crucial.  How many boards rely almost solely on written material when it comes to their being ‘properly informed’?  Who provides them with the written information?  How often is the majority, if not all, of the information generated by the administrators and staff?  In forty-plus years I have only known of a few that did not.  Boards, especially ‘volunteer boards,’ are too often not willing to take the time needed to be informed via an ‘oral-visual presentation.’  Nor are they willing to take the time to ‘deliberate’ via searching conversations (Greenleaf calls them ‘discussions’).  How many boards actually question whether the written information provided is ‘the’ information that will best serve them (so they can engage in a deliberative process)? 

When I consider the number of board members serving on many boards (especially non-profit boards) it makes some sense that ‘deliberative conversations’ are nearly impossible.  How can a board composed of 18-40 folks realistically engage in a deliberative, searching conversation [and 18 members is probably too many for such a conversation]?    

For me, this also raises a question of ‘Board Evaluation.’  How can a board determine if it is living out its charge as a board?  Who defines a board’s charge?  Who helps the board evaluate its own performance?  Should a board evaluate its own performance? 

Greenleaf notes that ‘carefully and imaginatively designed trustee information will serve three ancillary purposes’ – perhaps next time we will briefly explore these three purposes…then again.

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WHAT DO TRUSTEES NEED TO KNOW?

Greenleaf writes: What do trustees need to know?  They need to know what is required to carry the four major functions of trustees… (1)Set the goals and define the obligations, (2) appoint the top executive and design the top administrative structure, (3) assess the total performance of the institution, and (4) take appropriate action based upon what has been found in (3).  In addition, there usually are certain areas specified in the by-laws for trustee action.

How is the content of this trustee knowledge to be determined?  Who will secure it?  And how is it best presented and utilized?

The content will be what trust will be what trustees need to know in order to act, in the first instance, on matters with which they should be concerned.  …Trustees will need information in addition to what administrators and staffs give them so that they can make their own independent judgment…  Trustees will decide the extent and nature of the information they require in each area where they will make the decision.  It is important, however, that all information to trustees…be designed for the special needs of trustees. 

Gentle Reader, which of the four ‘major functions of trustees’ do boards that you know intentionally and purpose-fully address?  The term ‘goals’ can present a bit of bother for trustees and I have found that the concept of ‘outcomes’ is more helpful (the trustees define the major ‘outcomes’ and the administrators/staffs generate the goals and action steps necessary in order to achieve the outcomes).  In addition, ‘outcomes’ might well be carried over for a number of years and the ‘goals’ and ‘action steps’ for achieving them might well change even during the year. 

How many boards (especially not-for-profit boards) take the time and energy to ‘assess the total performance of the institution’?  My experience is that ‘volunteer’ board members do not want to invest the time and energy to do this and so they delegate this to the administrators/staffs.  The assessments I have seen these past forty-plus years have not been comprehensive.  I have known too many not-for-profit organizations that have never engaged in a comprehensive assessment. 

How many trustees actually take the time to discern the information that they need to have in order to fulfill their role?  I cannot begin to count the number of boards that were not able to clearly state the general and specific information they thought they needed.  Again, they relied too often on the administrators/staffs to decide what information to provide.  Too often trustees did not take the time to define their ‘information-needs.’  Some boards would engage in defining some of their information needs and then they would delegate to the administrators/staffs the gathering of the information. 

This lack of attention by trustees can easily result in trustees operating at a level far less than they are capable of operating were they to use their current resources fully and wisely. 

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A NEW ROLE FOR TRUSTEES, PART III. . .

Regarding a new role for Trustees, Greenleaf continues his reflection as he writes: Organization of the Top Executive Office…the organization of the top administrative office and the assignment of functions is not something that the members of that office do well.  …trustees are in a position to have the objectivity and the perspective on the institution to work this out.

How often do boards of trustees seek to hire the ‘personality’ rather than define the role of the top administrator first (rooted in the high priority needs of the institution) and then seek out the best person who can ‘fill the role’?  For a brief period of time last year I was a thought-partner to a board of a private school.  At that time the current President of the school had announced that he would be retiring that December.  I met with the board members who made up the ‘search committee’ and we explored two options.  A few influential board members wanted to hire a ‘name’ – in fact two of them had already approached the person they wanted to hire.  A few others wanted to define the high priority needs of the institution and then define the role of the President. After defining the role they would then seek out the best person to fill the role. 

I was asked which option I thought would best serve the school (I had been a thought-partner to the school on and off for many years so I knew the school quite well).  I thought the second option would provide them the best opportunity for it would require the board to define the needs and then to seek out the person best qualified to help them address the needs.  The three folks who supported the first option ‘won out’ (although the search committee is still conducting its ‘search’); the ‘name’ will be hired in the end.  Is this board truly holding in trust for the well-being of the institution? 

Greenleaf continues writing: A New Concept of Trust – Everyone in the institution has a share in building trust.  The administrators have the major responsibility for institutional performance that merits trust.  However, if there is not enough trust and if the level of trust has been low enough long enough, then it is the obligation of trustees to fulfill what their title implies and become initiating builders of trust.

‘Trust’ continues to be a major issue in organizations.  Survey after survey continues to rank ‘Trust Issues’ in the top three organizational issues (the first such survey I saw was taken in 1967).   Organizations talk about ‘trust’ and they ‘espouse’ trust and yet there continues to be major gaps between the trust that is espoused and the trust that is lived (or perhaps better, the trust that is betrayed).  Trust is betrayed when promises are made and not kept, when agreements are made and not kept, and when commitments are made and not kept. 

Too often, it seems to me, trust is not developed or sustained/maintained.  More importantly, when trust is broken, it is not easily healed.  It seems that it is difficult for folks to ‘forgive, reconcile and heal’ once trust has been broken.  How often do trustees truly embrace their role as ‘trust-builders,’ ‘trust-maintainers’ and ‘trust-rebuilders’?  How often do they even reflect upon these crucial ‘trust-roles’? 

You learn to trust others by trusting them. –Lao Tzu

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