10 signs your board has a strong pulse

Great systems are usually governed by great boards, who are made up of people who match the following 10 descriptions. 

Great board members do more than comply with corporate governance structure and rules. Too often, board members have loose ties to one another, are passive to the wants and views of the CEO or are not as informed about the specifics of healthcare as they ought to be. We view all of these traits, and more, as signs that a board has lost its charge and is no longer effectively governing.

We consider the following 10 items as descriptors of a board member who has a strong pulse and adds value to a governing body. 

1. The board member is active, engaged and passionate about being a board member. No board can afford to have disengaged members. Bylaws and attendance requirements are important, but simply complying with them does not necessarily equate to being an active, contributing and passionate trustee. Engaged board members show up to meetings, and they show up prepared. While members typically refrain from meddling in day-to-day operations, boards with high levels of trust and candor make a point to communicate with the CEO outside of scheduled board meetings. Quality of board engagement is an important contributing factor to board performance, and there is a correlation between board engagement and the ability to attract board members. Everything that follows is dependent on board engagement. 

2. The board member has a point of view on what the organization must be great at, and the board member is vehement about it. Health systems cannot be all things to all people, although the opportunities to attempt this are ample. The best organizations are not static, but disciplined. Well-governed systems know the specialties they are great in, and they continue to double down on their strengths. Their boards are cognizant of where revenues come from and ensure resources are allocated accordingly.

3. The board member realizes that her top job is to ensure the system has great leadership in place. Leaders can fall short in all sorts of ways, some more visible and easily detectable than others. The active, engaged and vehement board does not easily accept disappointment. Boards have many steps at their disposal to manage a problem before firing a CEO or senior leader, but they should never function in a way where termination is unthinkable. Boards cause great damage when they tolerate mediocre performance or compromised values among people at the top of the organization. 

4. The board member understands accountability for patient safety and quality of care rests firmly in the boardroom. It rests on board members to insist that they receive sufficient, timely information about patient safety and care quality from the CEO. It rests on board leadership to ensure members have access to expertise and resources to properly obtain, process and interpret this information. It is not a bad idea for quality expertise to be included in board members' competency profiles and for boards to undergo training and continued education in quality and safety. This is especially relevant for board members who come from industries outside of healthcare. It rests on the board when care quality declines or when lapses in patient safety are unaddressed: It is unacceptable for a board to say it missed the memo on care outcomes or that it did not understand the information in front of it. 

5. The board member is a watchdog on societal, governance and audit issues. Informed citizens make for strong board members. It is important to not only be plugged in and aware of the issues and challenges confronting the organization today, but to be aware of broader societal issues that could affect system strategy and performance tomorrow. This is not hypothetical thinking. The past year was a master class in how broader issues affected healthcare in acute and direct ways: systemic racism, a global supply chain and a churning labor market are just three. Good boards are made up of members who stay informed and are biased toward anticipatory thinking, in which they are eager to explore the ways in which issues larger than or outside of their industry may come to affect the organization they help govern. 

6. The board member supports the leadership team, but also questions it and holds it accountable. Board members cannot be pushovers for leadership. Directors are nominated by existing board directors on the nominating committee, which often includes the CEO. As a result, trustees can empathize with the CEO of the organization on whose board they sit. Empathy does not equate to blind acceptance, but this is nonetheless a dynamic trustees should be aware of and work to keep in check. It is not unusual for board members to struggle when giving candid feedback to the CEO, for example. As a result, chief executives carry on and live in a bigger and bigger bubble. 

It's worth noting that the reverse can occur within boardrooms as well, in which board members disagree about strategy and seek a CEO they can easily influence. At the end of the day, being a pushover is not associated with strong leadership and should be avoided by both trustees and senior executives. Instead, trustees need to embrace constructive tension in the boardroom. Questions, challenges and disagreements that reach resolution can drive valuable dialogue and stronger outcomes.

7. The board member allows others to voice their thoughts. In many boardrooms, a small number of the participants do most of the talking while the majority stays relatively quiet. A powerful or well-connected member may dominate discussions. Ideally, boards embrace the middle in interpersonal communication, with trustees contributing not too much nor too little. Either goes against the board's very reason for being. 

8. The board member helps ensure the board as a whole reflects the racial, ethnic, gender, religious and socioeconomic diversity of the community served by the organization. This is important for a number of reasons, with health equity being principal. Trustees are stewards for the communities they serve. For hospitals and health systems to increase opportunities for everyone to be healthier — including those who face the greatest obstacles — they need visions, strategies and goals that begin at the top from individuals who have viewpoints from the community. Without these insights, the board simply can't govern effectively. Additionally, research has consistently found that teams of people who have diversity in knowledge and perspectives — as well as in age, gender and race — can be more creative and better avoid groupthink.

9. The board member is accessible. Just as no board wants its CEO in a bubble, governing bodies must actively resist this risk. For a stretch of time, boards were less visible groups of people who would meet four to six times a year in a mahogany-paneled room to decide the future of an organization that employs tens of thousands and serves even more. This dynamic cannot hold in healthcare. Community members and employees should know — or be able to easily learn — who serves on their health system's board. If stakeholders bring issues or concerns to a board member, the trustee should be prepared to respond and follow up. In 2021's healthcare, board members cannot breathe rarified air.

10. The board member emulates the values of the health system. So often when people talk about the tone being set at the top, they have the CEO in mind. The board is just as responsible, if not more responsible, for this charge. What a board permits, it promotes. Board members that emulate system values are better positioned to collaborate with mutual respect, candor and trust. Board members whose values are mismatched or personal agendas are at cross-purposes with the good of the organization should be replaced. 

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