For several years, I have pushed every board I encounter to read the book, Governance as Leadership. It is not only an insightful read for best practices regarding governance, but it is particularly important because it also provides much needed historical context for how boards have become so complacent and ineffective over time. There are great questions and exercises included in the text which push boards to consider their purpose, effectiveness, and decision making processes. The author, Richard Chait, advocates for what he calls, “tri-modal governance.” The three modes of governance are called fiduciary, strategic, and generative.

The fiduciary mode is in view when the board exercises its legal responsibilities of oversight and stewardship. The second is the strategic mode, in which the board makes major decisions about resources, programs, and services. The third, and most important, is the “generative” mode, in which the board engages in deeper inquiry, exploring root causes, contemplating values, considering principled options, and weighing new ideas in the view of the school’s mission.

Chait argues that the fiduciary and strategic modes are largely what boards spend their time doing, but alone, are incomplete. They are necessary, but not sufficient because they leave out expressive aspects of the organization. The issues schools face need values and insights; questions need to be framed around the right, mission-focused principles. For this, a board needs to engage in the generative mode.

Chait says generative work needs to shape the fiduciary and strategic work of the board. Before boards “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.”

Here is one quick example: many boards contemplate the kind of financial aid system that would be most effective and appropriate for their school. However, instead of beginning with the fundamental philosophical question of why there is a financial aid program in the first place, what often happens is a committee is formed and a host of possible options are drawn up for consideration. Instead of asking how the mission of the school would be impacted by various means of financial aid options, the options are considered with no meaningful conversation about the most important question of all: why do we do financial aid at all and how will changes either help us advance the mission or obscure it?

Generative governance is most important because it focuses the board’s attention on the most important questions. In this sense, it provides the best use of the board’s talent, helps the Head think in a mission-focused way, and generates the need for decisions to be made. According to Chait, “Generative work conveys the gift of helping executives see things better, improving their perception and perspective so that they are in a better position to invent new goals, to discard old goals, to better see problems and to discard problems that really are not that important in the long run.” 

To focus on what matters most, ask yourself whether your board is engaged in ongoing, meaningful generative conversations.