Is That a Good Board Question?

Governance specialists encourage board members to have inquiring minds and to ask challenging questions. You can’t add value by rubber stamping recommendations.

That does not mean that asking why kitchen supplies increased by $42 over last year, in a four million dollar budget, is a good question! Nor are questions like, “Are you out of your mind?” or, “Can we just pretend we never heard about this fraud?”

What’s the point of questions at a board meeting? The answer is pretty simple. It’s to aid in decision making. When thinking of a question, ask yourself, “Will the answer help me and other board members identify and choose the best option? Give excellent, timely direction? Allocate resources wisely?” If the answer will do none of those things, maybe it would be better to listen for a while until you think of another question.

In other words, it’s not really helpful to ask questions intended to show off your knowledge, humiliate your colleagues, gather irrelevant information, avoid tough issues, browbeat staff members or persuade directors to make a decision that gives you a personal benefit. I’ve seen questions asked at board meetings for all of those reasons.

Good questions do not presume the answer. Initially, try to use questions to open up the discussion and figure out how to best frame the issue. Gather information neutrally and without jumping to a solution. Ask, for example,

  • What outcomes are we trying to achieve here?
  • Which stakeholders were consulted and what were their primary concerns about this issue? Is there anyone else who might bring valuable and differing perspectives or knowledge?
  • Can you tell me more about what options you considered and what criteria you used to analyze them? Can we pause and consider whether we’ve omitted some options?
  • How does the proposed action on this issue align with our vision, mission, values and strategic plan?

Note: If the answers were highlighted in your board package, such questions will reveal your lack of preparation! But if the advance information or presentation wasn’t clear, you will benefit everyone from having the courage to ask for clarifications. . Asking “dumb” questions is easier than fixing dumb mistakes.

Even more important, if the answers reveal that only one or two options were considered, do not proceed until at least three options are on the table beyond “do nothing.” The third option is almost always better than options one or two, and sometimes the best option emerges only after there are twenty on the list! At that point, it’s usually a combination of good features from several of the earlier options. If adding options means deferring the decision, and there are no serious consequences of a delay, then brief deferral is better than making a bad decision.

As the potential answers get narrowed down and one option seems to be appealing to most, learn more about it, still neutrally.

  • If we take advantage of this opportunity, what will we need to stop doing?
  • If we don’t take advantage of this opportunity, what are the long-term implications for us?
  • If we invest these resources, are we looking at new revenues or reduced spending elsewhere? Can I have more details?
  • What negative risks have been identified and how would they be mitigated?
  • How well have we consider the degree and likelihood of harm from this action and can we live with it?
  • What reaction can we expect from key stakeholders if we take this action?
  • How would we communicate this decision?

If you don’t like the answers, go back to the options and try harder to find a better combination of features.

Note that none of these questions reveal your personal opinion. The longer you wait to make and communicate a personal decision, the more likely you are to be open to new facts and alternatives. You won’t lose face if you change your mind from your preliminary thoughts. And if you are a highly respected, experienced director, you won’t be intimidating less senior or less experienced directors who may have new ideas to bring to the table. Their fresh eyes, and perhaps stronger connections to the community being served, can lead to wonderful innovations. Take care not to shut them down early. This is particularly important if you are the chair, as most directors do not want to contradict or challenge the chair.

The questions I’ve suggested above do include challenges. If whoever brought the item to the board didn’t consult stakeholders, clarify decision criteria, do a risk analysis, consider financial implications and more, they will learn not to leave out those steps again. If they did an incomplete job, it’s a good chance to talk about priorities and putting efforts into what matters most.

Don’t push for an exhaustive review on small items; focus on decision items that really matter.

Directors often tell me the issues they are most interested in aren’t even on the agendas. Ask first for an agenda item of “suggestions for future board meetings.” And use that time to ask questions such as:

  • Could we please have an education session to learn more about _______?
  • When can we talk about the impact of the recent change in government on our ability to carry out our mission?
  • Can we have a discussion soon on the big demographic changes in our community and what they mean for our organization?
  • Would others be interested in new thinking on investment policies? I work in that area and would be happy to share what I know.
  • What’s the best way for directors to be ambassadors for this organization? Would that be a good topic for November?

I hope these ideas help you frame questions that truly support excellence in board decision making. Practice and your questions will go from good to great.

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