As dumb as that sounds, there are people who think implementing Policy Governance is the cure for all governance problems.
Policy Governance as an integrated governance model has been compared to a Swiss watch with gears and springs. It only works when all the parts are in the right place.
I'm a strong proponent of the Carver watch. I believe in it. I wear it. I tell time by it. And yes sometimes it frustrates me. Its alarm goes off and wakes me up. It tells me the time, when I wish the time was different. However it has its shortcomings. It tells time with incredible accuracy, but it doesn’t get me to my appointments on time. Its alarm goes off, but it doesn’t get me out of bed.
I’ve shown the Policy Governance watch to many faith-based organizations. Most of them love the watch, but some have found it wanting.
The pastor had spoken with a friend who suggested the Carver model. Later the pastor read my book A Guide to Governing Charities and was convinced this is what the church board needed.
Board meetings were protracted, as directors wandered with seeming aimlessness in and out of out of various topics and issues. Some board members were fascinated by the discussions, some were intrigued, while yet others were failing miserably at their efforts not to look bored. These meanderings led the board to becoming bogged down. In attempts to salvage something from the time and passion invested, motions would be passed. The board randomly addressed certain issues while ignoring others. It obsessed over the budget, but responded to year-end deficits with an oops…we’ll get it next year.
One of the board members, originally from a South America country was confident he knew how the church in Wisconsin could serve in that country. Another board member had a degree in human resources and periodically imposed his expertise on the pastor.
The board agreed to engage my services beginning with an introduction to Policy Governance. This led to their decision to proceed with its implementation. I then facilitated some sessions in the development of Board Process, Board-Pastor Relationship, and Executive Limitations policies. Later we worked on developing Ends policies. I followed up by offering to coach the board and the pastor to heighten the likelihood of their success. After a few meetings the board assured me it sufficiently understood Policy Governance and that it didn’t need my input. I was on a contract basis for the year; so lest you think money was an issue, it wasn’t. I followed up by having two meetings with the board chair, offering hints and even outright advice. But to no avail. I met with the pastor who was all too aware that his role and the role of the board were blurred; boundaries were violated and the policies by which the board had agreed to conduct itself were ignored. Then new board members came on who had no understanding or appreciation of Policy Governance. A few pieces of the watch were still on the board room table, but most were lost within the covers of forgotten policy manuals.
It took about two years for the pastor to resign. By that time the board was unhappy with him. Some of its grievances were clear violations of certain executive limitations; including some policies which had never been monitored. However more of its criticisms with its pastor had nothing to do with anything it had stated. The denunciations were chronic, vague and nebulous. The board even offered him a six month probationary period where he could prove himself. I’m sure neither the pastor nor the board had any idea what a successful probationary period would look like, never mind the attendant results.
This church board will purport that going to the Policy Governance gym didn’t result in it becoming healthier. Maybe it wasn’t the right gym, the right equipment or the right trainer. In any event that particular church isn’t going back to the Policy Governance gym anytime soon.
So what went wrong? A turnover of board members and the pastor being released renders an empirical conclusion virtually impossible. However based on other cases, we could extrapolate some possibilities. In all likelihood they will be reduced to two foundational problems.
The first problem is that the church board didn’t see Policy Governance as a whole new game. It saw the Carver model as just another way of doing board governance. It seemed like a good idea, but it never saw the need for radical change. Unless it saw Policy Governance as a different game and not just some nuanced changes to an old game, it was destined to fail. The field is a different shape.
The equipment is different. Baseball can’t be played while wearing skates. Proactive policies must replace reactive decisions. Micromanagement and rubberstamping are not practices to be avoided, because Policy Governance doesn’t allow a board to do either.
The second problem is that it wasn’t willing to embrace the discipline required in overcoming the instincts of most traditional board members. It isn’t just a matter of eating one less piece of pie or walking fifteen minutes a day. It’s a complete change of lifestyle; and that’s not easy for a board which has never exercised self-discipline at the board table.
Some blame needs to lie with the trainer–that’s me. So what mistakes did I make and how could I have instructed the board in a way which would have at least increased the likelihood of success?
At the outset the shift to Policy Governance was initiated by a charismatic leader. In many ways he was the de facto chair of the board. When he suggested the Policy Governance model to the board, it accepted the idea. Early on in the process he left his position as the church, and with his departure went the one championing the implementation of Policy Governance. (The pastor to whom I referred to earlier, inherited what the first pastor started.)
The nature of the Policy Governance model is such that it won’t survive when there’s a single advocate; whether that’s the pastor, the board chair or someone else on the board. In the case of this example, the departure of the pastor certainly contributed to the ineffective implementation of the model. However his departure likely just hastened the inevitable failure of the model being effectively implemented. I failed, in that I facilitated a process that didn’t have the buy-in of the whole board. Before a board agrees to move ahead with Policy Governance it needs to have more than the tacit support of its members. There needs to be freedom on the part of the board to provide pushback, oppose the concept and review the drawbacks. Sometimes boards are so frustrated with the way things have gone in the past that anything different will be appealing. Other boards can be culturally compliant which results in support of something they don’t really understand.
Sometimes after a robust conversation about implementing Policy Governance, the board is divided. Some may be fully confident in moving ahead with the model. Others may be equally as adamant that using the Carver model is regressive. Some may be willing to give it a try but aren’t altogether sold. In the end it will come down to how the board votes. If according to its rules, a majority affirms the motion to implement the model, a board can move forward. However this needs to be done with the utmost care. This isn’t a simple board decision about a motion; it goes to the heart of how the board will be moving forward into the future.
I spent a weekend introducing Policy Governance to the board of a denomination. At the end of the meeting the chair was ready to entertain a motion to have the board implement the model. I could tell that the majority would vote in favor; but there were one or two long time board members who were reticent. I suggested that the vote be postponed until the next board meeting. The postponement resulted in the board defeating the motion. While the majority were ready to move ahead, they saw the perils of doing so when some were still struggling with the idea. I believe they were wise not to push it, but rather to be patient. Policy Governance requires such a great degree of ownership and discipline that it needs everyone pulling in the same direction. When that doesn’t happen it will be difficult to successfully carry out all the principles of the Carver model.
When a board contemplates moving to Policy Governance it can result in some board members immediately stepping down or serving out their terms. Those who are more comfortable with the traditional model may see how excited others are about the value that Policy Governance can bring to the board. When that happens, some board members will step aside. Recently a board member of a mission organization told me of a situation where this happened rather dramatically. When the decision was made to move ahead with Policy Governance, one board member closed his laptop, offered a verbal resignation and walked out. Sometimes departures are not immediate–or as intense. Some board members will serve out the balance of their term and quietly move on.
If your board is considering Policy Governance, don’t let a consultant sell you on it. It’s not the silver bullet. Nor should your board implement the Carver model just because the consultant thinks it’s the only way. However, I’m convinced that Policy Governance if implemented carefully will increase the effectiveness and efficiency of your board. Passive attendance at the Policy Governance gym doesn’t make you a healthier board. Only a board’s active engagement in the employment of all of the Policy Governance principles will contribute to excellence in owner accountable governance.