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Classical Christian MovementSCL Updates

A Call for Generative Governance

By April 16, 2024No Comments

For years now I have been promoting Governance as Leadership, an excellent book on governance, that I believe every board and head should read. The book lays out three modes of governance: fiduciary, strategic, and generative. The fiduciary mode focuses on compliance and stewardship. It is an important, necessary function of the board, but the lowest level of board leadership.

The second mode is the strategic. When boards are in strategic mode, they consider ways in which the organization can improve. They often develop a guiding document around strategic priorities and goals. Chait, one of the authors, argues that the strategic mode is important for boards, but is not sufficient for strong governance. The way boards excel is through being adept at the generative mode of governance.

The fiduciary and strategic modes are familiar to boards but are not the means of adding the greatest value. If fiduciary work is all boards do, it is essentially the equivalent of a substitute teacher. The focus becomes keeping things in the fence, but not advancing towards an aspirational end. One reason why Chait says that boards tend to default almost exclusively to the fiduciary and strategic modes of governance is that they are often unclear about what their role is altogether.

Chait’s research shows that board members consistently report they are not fulfilled in their roles, often because they don’t know what they are even supposed to be doing. Board members exert a lot of time and energy, but often reactively and with minimal effectiveness. Learning the generative mode can change that and allow boards to maximize the talent, expertise, and wisdom of the leaders they have assembled to govern.

The generative mode is the strongest source of leadership for the organization, and its primary role is “sense maker.” The board “decides what to decide,” discerns challenges and opportunities, and probes assumptions. It examines the presuppositions behind the strategies and frames issues around the school’s values and mission. The fiduciary and strategic modes are important, but not complete. They leave out expressive aspects of the organization, which need clarity around the right principles, values, and insights. Generative governance ensures the problems are understood in view of the school’s identity and core values. It provides the head with the board’s collective “mind” around the most important issues the school is facing.

As Chait says, “Before they use various forms of managerial expertise to solve problems, organizations need to figure out which problems need solving. Before they figure out the best strategy for getting from the present to a preferred future, organizations need to figure out what that preferred future is.” The generative mode forces boards to ask “why” before they get to how; to know the right problems to solve, and what will frame the solutions they seek.

As an example, take financial aid. Let’s suppose a board is dissatisfied with the current system and wants to explore a better solution. A fiduciary approach will focus on cost, compliance, and process. The strategic mode will focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the new system, how to implement and communicate any changes, and how it impacts the systems in place. It may also look at a comparative analysis of various financial aid systems.

The generative mode calls for first asking, why do we have financial aid? What is the desired demographic of our student body/families? How does financial aid represent our mission/values as an organization? What principles should guide our process? This is so important because “the framework within which issues will be viewed and decided is often tantamount to determining the result.” Understanding a clear why will yield the kind of clarity needed to approximate the right solution. Generative thinking should precede the fiduciary and strategic problems. It should undergird the how and the what of the board’s activity and problem-solving.

Generative governance makes governance indispensable, making the best use of the insights and abilities of the board. It is most helpful to the head of school and deeply satisfying for trustees. Generative thinking demands a fusion of thinking, not a division of labor; it places high value on deliberation, facilitation, and trust; and, it almost guarantees that boards are not meddling in operations. 

To do generative governance well will mean less formality in meeting structure (note: Robert’s Rules of Order is a terrible paradigm for generative discussion); more open-ended conversation, and a mindset that allows for healthy disagreement. Generative governance requires patience and great facilitation skills from the chair. It requires a “new approach to trustee recruitment, one that stresses quality of mind, a tolerance for ambiguity, an appetite for organizational puzzles, a fondness for robust discourse, and a commitment to team play.”

For most boards, a steep learning curve exists for governing in the generative mode. That is to be expected. It challenges many non-profit norms and implicitly pushes boards to reexamine many of their practices and even their current composition. Chait offers a helpful way to improve by suggesting boards should profile and recruit board members based on the three modes of governance. How many generative-thinking board members do you have? Examine the people and practices of your board to determine if your vision for governance is generative. The effectiveness of your board and the engagement of your board members will improve dramatically. But, more importantly, the families and students you are there to serve will be the recipients of wise and focused leadership.

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