A Representative Board Is not an Effective Board

It is very common for a board of trustees of an organization or even of a church to be filled or appointed on the basis of what is typically spoken of as “representation”. 

Sometimes the basis for this representation is geographic:  thus the US Senate has two senators from each state and, it is assumed, they “represent” the interests of their state in the Senate deliberations.   Sometimes the basis is an interest group and the board is formed in such a way that this “voice” or perspective needs to be represented on the board.   And so the bylaws might actually specify this:   three members of the board need to come from this constituency and they are appointed to represent that interest group.  And then they sit on the board and are alert and attentive to those interests that they are asked to represent and, perhaps advocate for. 

Sometimes, gender diversity or age or ethnic diversity or even occupation might be the basis for appointment to a board.   I recall a conversation on a nominations committee when we said we needed more women, more ethnic diversity and more age diversity and we needed more from the business and corporate world and someone came up with a name of a person with whom we could check off all four boxes! 

Well, diversity is needed.  And yes, in some ways every person on the board of trustees “represents” some constituency or other.   They come from this church group or this demographic or this region of the city or country.   But, the reason for this diversity and why it matters is that their approach to the board deliberations will be shaped by where they are coming from – everything from gender to ethnicity to age along with where they live and where they work.  We need diversity of perspective; and so we make appointments that encourage this diversity.   

However, what must be challenged is the idea this person now represents that constituency consciously and intentionally.   Rather we must rather affirm that this representation is implicit and as such it enriches deliberations.   But it is not explicit:  we cannot say that we are on a board to advocate for or defend the interests of an external group.   Rather, board membership assumes a fundamental commitment to the mission and vision of this organization.  And further, that regardless of which constituency one comes from, one is concerned for each of the constituencies that the organization serves.      

I am an older, married, male of European descent of a particular church affiliation, etc. etc.  But while no doubt all of this shapes my approach to the issues on our board, the board is about what is good for the whole and as a board member, I must be thinking about and working with my colleagues towards a common vision and end that fosters the capacity of this institution to achieve each of the key outcomes that are vital to the mission of this organization.   Yes, we need diversity   but, not so that we are each representing or defending this or that constituency.  Rather we have diversity of perspective so that we are more effective in our decisions towards serving each of the constituencies for which we are responsible.  

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.