12/05/2012 08:41 am ET Updated Feb 04, 2013

All on Board

Board management isn't what most not-for-profit leaders would describe as scintillating work. At least, I wouldn't. As a social entrepreneur working to grow my organization, I've always had enough to think about without worrying about board bureaucracy. Strategy development, service and process design, branding and outreach, finances and our long-run sustainability, not to mention helping the summer intern who has no housing, leaking plumbing in the office and the students - these are my priority concerns. There's so much need and so little time.

I generally thought of my board simply as something simply to be managed (and occasionally fed!). I invested in our board meetings because they were required under our constitution. Full stop. With an attitude like mine, of course, it's no wonder that my board underperformed, despite the talent of its members. It was no one's fault but mine, of course - I was chair. But, my excuse was again "no time, no time".

Live and learn.

Last month, thanks to the Schwab Foundation, I participated in an executive education course on board management run by the Harvard Business School and led by Dr Alnoor Ebrahim. The course was only three and half days. However, it was powerful enough to force an about-face.

With an exceptional faculty, the course, like every Harvard course, provided a framework and tools for practical application. But Harvard courses are profound not because of their two-by-two matrices, but because of the force with which the faculty inspires critical analysis and re-analysis.

I've always known that boards can be inventive, inspiring and enormously productive. Yet, I now understand that a committed board is the organization's primary source of sustainability. It is the organizational champion, its safeguard; more so, I now believe, than the founding entrepreneur.

At the most basic level, the board should serve a forcing function, ensuring that the organization's strategic and operational logic is in place. But an achieving board can do so much more. If effectively constructed, the board will serve as the founder's partner, helping him or her design not only the processes of the organization but also its essential values.

Board members should be the committed "others", sharing the dream; close enough to understand the challenge and the practical priorities, but far enough away to see and protect the long-term vision. The board is the foundation upon which the organization is built, providing its strength and structure.

A 180 degree turnaround for me. Of course, I'm disappointed that these insights didn't come earlier, but for me they are hopeful. There is such tremendous opportunity waiting - for every organization. I think honing that opportunity will be well worth the effort. I'll definitely make the time.