Effective Board Governance: Infusing a New Perspective — in conversation with Lisa Spadafora Thompson
Given today’s relentless pace of business disruption, the expectations are enormous for board performance. Board members are asked to nimbly steer their companies in the right direction, constructively advise C-suite leadership, and diligently drive long-term strategic growth. How can boards best govern for today and tomorrow — and grow their individual and collective contributions?
We posed this question to Lisa Spadafora Thompson, a seasoned business consultant who has served on several corporate and nonprofit boards and advises board members on how to enhance their governance effectiveness.
Lisa, your board expertise is vast and deep. What is your overall approach to enhancing board governance?
“Over the years, I’ve experienced a range of board configurations, from small private companies with strong structures to nonprofits with no structure at all. If I’m consulting with a board that has a poor or nonexistent governance structure, the first thing I do is assess where there are immediate risks. Immediate risks are often basics, such as being in compliance with the bylaws or the ownership manual and ensuring the financials are in order.
Once the basics are nailed down, we can begin asking higher-order questions, such as: Is the company reaching its growth objectives consistently and sustainably? If the answer to that question is “no,” we need to start by looking at our board. I spoke with someone recently who had been on the board of a company for 18 years. As a company changes so, too, do the requirements of board members. It’s highly unlikely that one person can be the best advisor for nearly two decades of change. We need to assess the impact of the board the way we assess any other area of the company.”
Once boards address these questions, how do they create an action plan for growth?
“I recommend a board do a self-evaluation every year. Large, complex organizations have outside counsel objectively review the board function every few years. Board evaluations are helpful in looking at all categories, from strategic strengths to board member interactions, and illuminating areas where boards can make small moves that can have a big impact, for example, in board composition.
I sat on a board composed exclusively of older white men (except for me). The board and the management team thought diversity was important but also felt that the nature of their industry didn’t attract women and people of color. As a result, the pool of candidates from which to choose was limited.
So, we decided to take a different approach to sourcing new candidates: Board members reached out to their personal networks, seeking to bring to the table new members who were duly qualified to meet the organization’s needs and had to be women and/or people of color. As a result of focused effort, the board grew almost immediately from being a homogeneous group to a diverse team representing four protected classes.”
How do you advise a board that’s already governing well — but seeks to make a greater impact?
“Sometimes outside counsel can help us see what we can’t see. For example, I served once on a board where the CEO and CFO distributed 200-page financial documents that couldn’t possibly be absorbed before a meeting. With the help of an outside advisor, we revamped our preparation for board meetings. Members began receiving a high-level summary of three major topics for discussion, including the situation, the complicating factors, and the questions for board response. The financials and the CFO report became part of a Consent Agenda. This simple step led to a lighter workload for the C-suite leaders — and much more effective board meetings where the CEO and CFO got the advice they needed on the most important issues affecting the business.”
Thank you, Lisa, for your thoughtful insights .
Lisa Spadafora Thompson is a pricing and profitable growth expert with an entrepreneurial mindset. Through her company, Sturbridge Growth Partners, she delivers highly customized, actionable solutions, helping companies break down self-created barriers that keep them from growing profitably. The result is viable pricing strategies and win-win deals that consistently exceed revenue and profit goals.
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