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Geographically dispersed boards

Most of my client teams (board and staff leaders) are geographically dispersed. As an organizational and governance consultant, I give them the value of my expertise in organizational structure, policy development, and implementation. Usually I end up working as a leadership coach as well. When the client board and staff meet face-to-face only once or twice a year, communications and consistency is a challenge. In some cases, the entire board never gets together face-to-face.

I talked with Keith Ferrazzi who is an expert on relationship development. When I asked him if geographically dispersed teams can work together effectively, he asserted it was absolutely essential for the team to get together face-to-face at least once (personal communication, June 15, 2010). I believe he is correct. The ability to see someone’s facial expressions, gestures, and body language helps you interpret what you hear in that person’s voice and read in their emails. It’s also more difficult to get angry with someone you’ve met.

Working with a board is challenging in the best of circumstances, but working with a virtual, geographically dispersed, or technology-networked board creates unique group process problems leaders need to recognize. Forging a cohesive team from individuals in the same building is challenging. A dispersed board team faces multiple difficulties of time, distance, social, and cultural differences. Subgroups form and sometimes this leads to in-group versus out-group conflict and competition. Dispersed teams need to establish shared norms and agreement for common action toward overarching (i.e., superordinate) goals.

Shared norms start with setting ground rules about communication and how conflicts will be resolved. Conflict is normal. That’s why it’s so important to establish how your board will deal with conflict before it happens. One rule you should have is to avoid prejudging each other. Listen first (or read email first) as an advocate, as though you will need to defend your fellow board member’s position.

Everyone on the board brings a unique set of information, resources and knowledge. After setting the ground rules, the board needs to fully discuss the benefits of sharing mutually. The enhanced ability to generate knowledge, stimulate creativity, and increase efficiency through diversity is a major advantage. Diverse points-of-view make for better decision-making. A full discussion helps board members learn how to value diversity and share the wealth of knowledge and skills available. From this sharing, trust is built.

Setting ground rules, communicating and sharing mutual knowledge help create trust. But for everything to work, everyone on the team needs to take responsibility for the board’s success. If things aren’t going well, take the initiative to suggest an alternative communication tool — teleconference, data conferencing (Skype, NetMeeting, etc.) — that allows for simultaneous discussion. The more variety, the better.

No matter what’s going on, be sure that you stay upbeat. Nothing helps a board work together better than proactive, positive board members!


Sherry S. Jennings, PhD
Founder and principal of Sound Governance. Sherry started Sound Governance because board leaders need a safe space.

Read more about sherry.
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