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Why an Engaged Board is a Powerful Board

January 13, 2016

Posted in: WATSON Views

How would you describe your board? Are they engaged in their work and a valuable asset to your organization? Or do they simply go through the motions, spending time and energy on low value activities? At WATSON, we have been helping improve governance for over a decade and have seen a direct correlation between a competent, engaged board and organizational success. We know that successful boards govern with intention, engaging in dialogue that is challenging, persuasive, and inspiring.

What Does an Engaged Board Look Like?

An engaged board acts in the best interest of the organization in every aspect of its role. This includes directors arriving to meetings prepared and working cohesively as a team, both within the board and with management, towards the organization’s long-term strategic goals. Effective boards keep their directors engaged by selecting the right candidates, encouraging learning and growth, and providing constructive feedback. The most engaged boards don’t simply talk about engagement, they practice it regularly, tackling their underlying issues, evaluating their effectiveness, and adjusting their processes accordingly to become high functioning teams.

WATSON’s Five Tips for Building a Better Board

The levers for building a high-performance board that will have an impact on engagement include:

1. Keep the focus on purpose

Every organization needs, at certain times, to re-evaluate why it exists. A successful board discusses why the organization exists and what role the board plays in the organization’s success. With clear purpose, boards perform to a higher standard and directors remain engaged and produce better results because they are able to see the value in their work.

2. Articulate roles and responsibilities

Role clarity is essential for board success. Invest time to ensure roles and responsibilities of board leaders, individual directors, committees, and officers are clearly defined in your board governance policies. When directors are clear on their roles and the expectations set out for them, they are able to focus on the right issues to guide an organization to success.

3. Deliver high quality information to directors

Management is responsible for providing the board with the right information before entering the boardroom. Ensure the information given to your board is high level enough that board meetings aren’t spent analyzing small details, but rather, discussing strategic matters of the organization. If the pre-meeting material is mired in detail or provides unrelated information, directors are left unprepared to make decisions and board conversations suffer. It is crucial that briefing documents focus on outlining strategic issues, risks to consider and decisions that need to be made. To ensure the right information is provided, schedule a conversation between the board and CEO to discuss the quality and quantity of information that is needed.

4. Seek out and prepare the leaders your board needs

One of the most important processes a board can create is a strong recruitment process to bring in excellent directors and future board leaders. A strong board or committee chair comes with experience navigating difficult and often political situations and is able to create a culture of full participation and engagement characterized by robust dialogue, intentional process, aggressive learning, and clear decisions. Through designing effective agendas and engaging and facilitating difficult conversations, the best board and committee chairs encourage all directors to voice their concerns and opinions in a manner that continually forwards the organization’s goals.

Most importantly, strong leaders need to be given education and support to be prepared for their roles. Equipping your directors with constant learning opportunities allows them to marry their knowledge and background with the processes that are most applicable to your organization’s success.

5. Provide proper support and feedback to directors

The highest functioning boards couple learning opportunities with structured processes for proper feedback.  Whether this is regular board evaluations or in-camera feedback sessions, communicating board strengths and weaknesses allows your board to acknowledge underlying issues that may be hindering progress. It is also important for your board or governance chair to have one-on-one conversations with directors to identify learning needs on an individual basis. Once your board is able to recognize areas in need of improvement, you can begin to identify ways to address them individually or as an entire board.


Building a high-performing board takes effort on behalf of the entire board, directors, and the organization’s management and leadership team. It is an ongoing exercise that needs to find its place at the top of every board’s agenda.  At WATSON boards are our business and we can provide the support your board needs to succeed. Contact us to discuss ways we can help to raise the level of your board’s engagement.