How would your directors answer the question, “What’s our governing board’s mission?”
Most might ask, “Do you mean our organization’s mission?” Others might reach for the bylaws or the global corporate mission statement. But, a board's mission and a global statement are distinctly different.
What is the expressed vision of your governing board and what are the values that guide it? Chances are, they are all unexpressed or assumed. They shouldn’t be.
Most organizations and health care systems have their own statements of purpose (mission). Others add direction (vision) and cultural principles (values). Governing boards should have a hand in conceptualizing and approving them. After all, mission, vision and values are at the heart of every organization and fall well within the legal and practical domains of the governing board.
So, what value would be added if the governing board had its own mission, vision and values statements compatible with the overall organization’s, but specific to governance?
Many thought leaders suggest that culture is perhaps the single most important factor in determining the effectiveness and success of any board. Yet, few practical tools are available to help governing boards maintain or strengthen boardroom culture.
By developing and using board-specific and easy-to-understand mission, vision and values statements, trustees will have the foundation for a deliberate, intentional approach to building, defining and refining board culture.
The rationale is straightforward: Just as each organization should have such statements to clarify its reason for existence as well as its current state and future plan, so, too, should boards. Each governing board is, in essence, an organization within an organization — with its own responsibilities, mandates, culture, goals, members and practices. It should be intentional when defining its own boundaries, obligations and aspirations.
The board’s own statements reinforce the organization’s overall versions and spell out the board’s role and responsibilities in helping to fulfill the intent of the broader statements. They also support trustees in understanding their own individual and collective relationships to the mission, as well as to other board members.
Analyzing the impact of culture in the boardroom can present a paradox. On the one hand, culture and its corresponding manifestations in board behavior are often obvious. Examples of cultural factors might include each trustee’s professional outlook, educational attainment, ethnicity, age, service on other boards and many others. They all contribute — with a Rubik's Cube-like combination — to the thinking, behavior, habits and even core beliefs of the board.
The impact of culture can be far less obvious at other times. For example, organizations and groups that have been operating and meeting for an extended time often develop unwritten rules and expectations that could be described as culture (e.g., attendance and organizational participation). Even families arguably have their own minicultures of traditions, hierarchies and expectations about household responsibilities.
The late management guru Peter Drucker is credited with saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Most of the world’s most successful corporations have agreed wholeheartedly. Corporate culture is a well-established driving force and the object of substantial scholarly research and study. Businesses increasingly realize that corporate culture can affect many things, including employee satisfaction, talent recruitment and retention, sales, service, customer satisfaction and, ultimately, their long-term success.
Businesses also realize that culture cannot simply be left to chance and happenstance. Typically, they are deliberate about culture, often using corporate mission, vision and value statements as foundational tools to define and differentiate themselves and to strengthen internal morale.
Nuts and bolts
So, how might board-specific mission, vision and values statements relate to those of the organization? Could they be incongruous, or even conflict with one another? They should be complementary. The board’s statements, however, should be specific to governance, just as every division, department or unit of an organization does its own work within, and in support of, the overall mission. Each part of the organization has its own purpose and focus in contributing to the larger goals and objectives.
This table illustrates how the board’s mission, vision and values statements might differ from those of the overall organization.
Succinctly describes why the organization exists
Summarizes why the board exists in relation to the overall mission
Projects what the organization wants to be in the future
States how the board will help to achieve the organization’s ambitions
Expresses a “moral compass” of standards to advance the mission and vision
Spells out the principles upon which board members will act, individually and collectively
Creating and wordsmithing mission and related statements have become the topic of books, articles, lectures and the stuff of consultants’ dreams. Such sources frequently advise that statements should fit on the back of a business card, at the bottom of a letterhead or even on a bumper sticker or T-shirt. Maybe. Statements should express what the board feels in direct, easy-to-understand language. Succinctness always works, but that doesn’t mean simplistic branding slogans or just a few words. The statements should provide direction and guidance.
Unlike the organization’s overall statements, those of the board do not need to be created with wide distribution in mind. They should present concise language that trustees create and unanimously approve for their own use. The statements should be built on the following principles:
- Be consistent with, not repetitive of, the organization’s global mission, vision and values statements.
- Be compatible with the organization’s bylaws that reflect state corporate law about the responsibilities of the board.
- Be straightforward about the board’s function, culture, goals, and expected trustee behaviors and teamwork.
Case in point
More than a decade ago, the CEO and directors at South Shore Hospital in South Weymouth, Mass., agreed that the board should have its own governance-specific mission, vision and values statements. They also agreed that a small work group should recommend drafts to the full board. To give them a head start and direction, the full board brainstormed words or phrases that it thought might be included. Several dozen words and concepts were proposed for each statement.
Individual members of the work group developed drafts that then were merged and refined over three group sessions. Suggestions from the board were included, modified or rejected. The resulting statements were presented at a subsequent board meeting, considered for a month and then approved after minor modifications. Those statements are presented in the sidebar below.
An organization’s mission rarely changes, but how it is expressed can be improved or adjusted for changing times. Certainly, the vision must respond to strategic updates or other course corrections. Values also may shift in how they are expressed or what is included in the statement. Striving for diversity, for example, might be a value that would have evolved into such statements had they existed over the last few decades.
Annual or other regular reviews also are recommended as a part of an open discussion or board self-assessment process. Linking these reviews to strategic planning updates might be thought-provoking.
Devoting attention to governance-specific mission, vision and values can boost a board’s culture and performance, and trustee satisfaction. And, once considered, why not translate the mission, vision and values into statements to serve as a board compass, especially for new board members? They are not meant to replace bylaws or the organization’s more global statements. Rather, they can further refine the board’s role in supporting the organization’s overall aspirations, and to define the board’s own culture for present and future trustees.
Sean Patrick Murphy is an attorney, governance consultant and president/CEO of TanAlto Healthcare Group, Little Silver, N.J. Paul J. Taylor (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former senior vice president of South Shore Hospital, South Weymouth, Mass., and has served as board chair, director and adviser to foundations, trusts, and business and community boards.
South Shore Hospital's statements
Mission: The mission of the board of directors of South Shore Hospital is to sustain the resources of our charity and its affiliates, advance wellness, and treat sickness to benefit the people of our region.
Vision: The board of directors of South Shore Hospital is an energized, high-performing advocate for our charity as well as its patients. The board governs in an intentional manner, with an eye on the future of health care and its effects on our hospital, patient care, and the people of the region we serve. The board is committed to continuous evaluation, dedication to our mission and improvement as a board.
Values: The members of the board of directors of South Shore Hospital are guided by these values in fulfilling our mission and achieving our vision:
- We are passionate about our mission as a board.
- We believe integrity, unselfish leadership and focused discipline of the board is critical to maintaining and preserving the hospital’s mission of healing, caring and comforting to the people of our region.
- We are dedicated to working collaboratively.
- We are ever mindful of the changes in medicine, its delivery, and those effects on the hospital, its patients, employees, physicians and the people of the region we serve.
- We shall be inquisitive stewards in all related matters.
- We are innovative and fully engaged in our thinking about the future as it pertains to South Shore Hospital, its patients and the people of the region we serve.
- We are sensitive to the people of our region, their diversity, needs and support.
- We understand the critically important role of our charity and affiliates in our region, and strive to maintain public confidence.