Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What is my job? A question for Board members

I don't currently serve on a Board for any organizations, nor do I work for one. However, for much of adult life (certainly since 1985), I was intimately involved in Boards. I was both an employee for a Board, and in many cases served on Boards of other organizations either where I lived or in my professional life.

Actually, it was during that board service that I met Eli Mina. Eli is the current professional Parliamentarian employed by the the American Library Association. But, he is more than just a Parliamentarian. He helps groups to work effectively together, and is an insightful observer of organizational dynamics.

I subscribe to his e-newsletter, and would highly recommend it. There are also some great resources on his web site:

In the most recent newsletter he has this:
A corporate board member asked me this question: "Isn't my primary duty to the shareholders, to ensure their investments are protected and their dividends are maximized?" A similar question was raised by an elected municipal official: "Isn't my duty to vote as per the wishes of the citizens who elected me?" A third example is a Member of Parliament who, ahead of a vote on a contentious issue, said: "I have to go back to my riding [i.e. district] and find out how my constituents want me to vote."
I looked around on his web site and did not find this article (there is other great stuff...). The second paragraph is key. It is the concept that so many in governance on the larger scale seem to forget:
The above examples reflect a widespread misconception that the primary duty of elected officials is to please their constituents. In fact, the primary duty of elected officials is not to one constituency or another, but to the organization as a whole.
As a Board member, or representative, your job while acting on the Board is to consider the good of the organization as a whole. I just think what Congress could accomplish if they were to act this way. Now, this still let's people disagree about the idea, but would mean that the discourse would be different.

Here are a couple of the concluding paragraphs:
And what about that Member of Parliament? His/her duty is to the country as a whole and not exclusively to constituents back home. Basing one's vote solely on their preference would politicize the process (i.e.: develop perceptions that political leaders will do anything to appease voters in order to boost their re-election prospects). It may ultimately be unfair to the country as a whole.
The above comments mean that elected decision makers who perform their roles correctly (i.e.: placing the organization's interests ahead of narrow interests) can become targets of harsh criticisms by their constituents: "You did not keep your campaign promises" or "You capitulated and did not stand up for us" or "You can be sure we'll campaign against you at the next election." Being punished and chastised for doing your job correctly is not fun. This can make it feel very lonely in elected positions.

How can elected officials do their jobs correctly while coping with abuse and personal attacks? The typical advice is to develop a "thick skin" and not be swayed by criticism that may arise from widespread misconceptions about the roles of elected officials.
Can this problem be addressed differently? Yes, possibly by educating constituents, electors and shareholders, and by making them aware of the complexity of the work of elected officials and the fact that their duty to the organization as a whole must come first.
In an optimal setting, constituents will adjust their expectations and abandon the culture of personal entitlement. Given the prominence of the culture of entitlement, eradicating it would require sustained educational efforts by elected leaders. Such efforts would be a good investment that will strengthen the foundation and the backbone of your organization or community.
While ALA Council and the EB get bashed in some circles, I have seen much more of a move towards the healthier behavior of considering what is good for the organization rather than what helps the individual.