In his book On Board: The Insider’s Guide to Surviving Life in the Boardroom, John Tusa, an arts administrator and radio and television journalist, retells personal stories along with his colleagues’ accounts of having served on American as well as British and other European companies’ boards of directors. The book provides helpful insights into what being a board member actually involves and the larger question of defining the role and its responsibilities.
The human complexities within board interactions make the subject of board governance a difficult subject to teach. There’s no single model or formula for achieving success and personal and professional satisfaction from serving on a board. Tusa relays his experiences in an entertaining storytelling tone. He includes a helpful section with reflections on key lessons learned both at the conclusion of each chapter and at the end of the book.
Understanding exactly what governance is and board members’ proper role in the organization are the themes underpinning the book. Tusa demonstrates that there’s no meaningful difference between governance on a corporate board vs. an arts board. He notes that effective governance has more to do with understanding how humans think and behave rather than strictly employing a rigid management theory.
Board members are often faced with reconciling these four sets of factors: responsibility and power, accountability and interference, support and complacency, and compliance and speculation. The board chair, for example, is ultimately accountable for the organization, but they shouldn’t interfere with how it’s managed in any way, as that’s the C-suite’s job. The relationship between the chair and the CEO and CFO is foundational and vital for this reason. How this relationship is managed can often determine the success or failure of the board and the management team’s ability to accomplish the organization’s strategic aims.
The importance of collecting and sharing information is also a notable topic that surfaces in Tusa’s recounting of his board experiences. In some cases, information was used as a political smoke screen when presented to the board. Tusa emphasizes that “the quantity and detail of papers set before the governing body should facilitate effective supervision. Sheer volume of papers should not be used to obstruct and frustrate. Too much information is almost worse than too little.” With so much information at our fingertips in this Big Data environment, this is an important point to remember. Whether serving on the board or working on the management team, it’s a vital task for accountants and finance professionals to ask incisive questions and relentlessly promote the transparency of information, as well as ensure its veracity.
On Board is a useful read that would assist any management accountant to better understand and meet the demands of board leadership. It also provides great insight into the values that will likely lead to a much more successful and fulfilling experience when serving on a board.
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