Recruiting your board: 4 leadership roles to consider

When I think about a governing board that is working at its peak, I envision most, if not all, directors assuming responsibility for leading their collective and individual responsibilities.

Most boards have designated leadership in the form of officers and committee chairs. But don’t we really want our boards to function as self-managing teams, where the officers don’t have to ride roughshod over the committees but delegate projects with the confidence that tasks will be completed on time and with high quality?

You could call this ideal of board management a “distributed” or “shared leadership” model.

I recently reread a favorite essay from my grad school days: “Managing the Bossless Team- Lessons in Distributed Leadership” a 1991 essay by David Barry, PhD of the University of Auckland. In writing about distributed leadership, Barry says:

“At its heart is the notion that leadership is a collection of roles and behaviors that can be split apart, shared, rotated, and used sequentially or concomitantly. This in turn means that at any one time, multiple leaders can exist in a team, with each leader assuming a complementary leadership role.”

Four types of leadership

Barry describes four different types of leadership roles and behaviors critical to the success of the self-managed team. They are:

1. Envisioning leadership are the visionaries who “facilitate idea generation and innovation, define and champion goals, find conceptual links between systems and foster frame-breaking thinking.”

2. Organizing leadership, are the project manager types who “focus on details, deadlines, time, efficiency and structure… getting the task done… not wasting time.”

3. Spanning leadership are the connectors to resources outside the team, including “networking … developing and maintaining a strong team image with outsiders, intelligence gathering, locating and securing critical resources, … being sensitive to power distributions and being politically astute.”

4. Social leadership are the team builders who think about developing and maintaining the team itself, ensuring that “everyone gets his or her views heard, interpreting … being sensitive to the teams’ energy level and emotional state, injecting humor and fun into the teams work, and being able to mediate conflicts.”

Barry goes on to present a matrix that matches leadership needs to three different types of team assignments (project based, problem solving, policy making). The matrix illustrates what leadership qualities are needed for each project type and how those leadership needs shift over the life of the project. The matrix is too detailed to present here, but you can see it on page 19 of the article.

How can you apply this framework to your board of directors?

Whether you are recruiting new directors or considering the make-up of committees, you might want to think about ensuring that these four leadership roles are represented in your recruitment matrix.

Yes, maybe some of your current directors or committee members could play more than one of those roles  — if they were asked and if they were very intentional about taking on the responsibilities of that role for this assignment. (The asking part is good practice in any case. More below.)

But because most of us find ourselves more naturally inclined to one or two roles than others, it is worth recruiting directly for each needed characteristic. When your governance committee is reviewing the makeup of the board for special knowledge or expertise, it might also want to ask:

Based on behaviors our current board or committee members have already demonstrated, which of the four leadership characteristics are already abundant? What are we lacking for the tasks ahead?

As in any board recruitment process, target recruitment to fill in the gaps.

If a particular committee seems to be stuck, never completing tasks, a little self-diagnosis using this leadership model might prove helpful. Maybe you’re flush with big picture thinkers or content experts but nothing is moving forward because you don’t have the project management skills you need. (That’s why many boards usually turn to staff to fill in the organizing leadership role.)  I hear very frequently from board members or staff who lament the lack of spanners/connectors they would like on their team.

As I mentioned above, asking if someone is willing to use their talents on your behalf is good practice. I’ve seen too many disappointed faces when no one remembered to ask that critical question.

10 responses to Recruiting your board: 4 leadership roles to consider

  1. Stewart Lanier

    Thanks, Gayle. This is helpful reminder. The four types are akin to but not the same as Ichack Addizes’ PAEI (Performer, Administrator, Entrepreneur and Integrator) from his Corporate Lifecycles. I had not really thought of applying this model to board functioning. I’ll use yours/Barry’s with boards.

  2. Debra Beck

    What a great post, introducing us to a marvelous way of conceptualizing that helps to expand the conversation about board roles and recruitment. Thanks, Gayle, on both counts.

    In addition to reminding us that leadership can be enacted in many forms to collective benefit, it reinforces the important message that effective board recruitment involves far more than simply checking off boxes on a demographics-dominated chart (a message that bears repeating until all boards have successfully broken that habit). The diversity required for effective governance is multi-layered and rich. This expands the definition even further.

    Off to finish reading the Barry article and click on the Addizes link…

    • Gayle Gifford Post Author

      Thank you, Debra, for your comments. I’m so fortunate to have such incredibly thoughtful colleagues like you and Stewart to share thoughts and resources with. And I’ll second and third your comment about effective board recruitment and board make-up involving so much more than checking that generic set of boxes.

  3. Anton Elbers

    Gayle, I always enjoy reading your articles and they always seem to be so timely to what we are doing as a board currently. Thank you for your insightful work.

    • Gayle Gifford Post Author

      Anton, Thank you. And I have learned a lot from your leadership at The Orchard School.
      Folks, The Orchard School in New Hampshire is a shining example of intentionality and thoughtful consideration of its leadership and governance functions for many years. It has benefited greatly from passionate advocates, including its founder’s Anton and Eleanor Elbers. Throughout their association with the school, they have worked so hard to build a strong base of community support to enable leadership transitions that would carry the school forward beyond its founders.

Leave a reply

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.