How to be a Board that nurtures the next generation

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The founding generation sets up their organisation with passion, vision and commitment – be it a charity, a social enterprise or a business. The founding board members often feel like trustees, even if they don’t have that official title. The relationship between the board and the first employees is often a close and personal one. The early employees join because they share the founders’ same passion, vision and commitment. There is a sense of being one cohesive family.

Such an organisation, driven by commitment and passion, is a winning formula! The team works hard to birth the new organisation and sustain it. But if an organisation is going to continue growing and flourishing, the founding board members will need to change their approach over time, in the same way that parents need to ‘let go’ of their children as they grow into independence.

We have seen sad cases of boards that struggle with transition. By codifying their shared values, they imply a lack of trust in future generations. By appointing prominent ‘culture holders’, they ensure that things will be kept just the way they were. By anticipating and fixing every pitfall, they try to prevent the next generation making any mistakes – mistakes through which the founding generation gained valuable experience and wisdom.

To effectively transition, an organisation must start to develop new ways to sustain and adapt its vision. This can be hard for the earlier generations to watch. They remember the situations that led to the existing ways of working and they worry that the new generation may reject sound principles or endanger the organisation’s legacy.

It takes a skilled Chair to help the board see that an organisation should be greater than the individuals involved today. Vision and diplomacy are needed to prepare it for effective functioning after all the current members have moved on. Such a Chair creates an environment where new blood can contribute fully and build trust with the board; an environment where the formation of new relationships is a normal and valued activity.

A Chair can encourage the board to be relationally outward looking through regular evaluation of its skills gaps and the appointment of new members in a regular cycle. He or she will also find ways for the board to build appropriate relationships with all parts of the organisation, instead of relying on close personal contacts with valued long-term employees. The board needs to be in a position to make sound and balanced judgements about employees, customers or others and this requires a range of input and perspective.

Intentionally establishing reliable flows of information can feel unnatural. There can be a sense that creating intentional relationships in addition to existing informal personal and social relationships is less relational rather than more. Some founding directors will struggle with the transition, where others will be able to embrace change and transition relatively easily. Here again the role of the Chair is crucial; steering the board through transition, whilst honouring previous contributions and respecting individuals enough not to demand more than they can give.

Handled well, a board transition can result in the next generation of leadership including diverse vision-holders who have the capacity to handle the challenges of the future. That capacity will include the ability to relate effectively and intentionally with the whole organisation and its current and future stakeholders.