Don’t risk strategic oversight becoming interference

Posted on 10 Apr 2024

By Adele Stowe-Lindner, general manager, Institute of Community Directors Australia

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Board members must be careful they walk the line between oversight and interference.

Time and time again, we read news accounts of boards that did not have their eyes on the ball and were eventually held to account.

However, what of situations in which the board is too deeply involved and could be accused of interference? Walking the line between oversight and interference is difficult, and the board will be blamed either way if it gets it wrong.

ICDA general manager Adele Stowe-Lindner

It's all too easy for board members to interfere without intending to do so. For volunteers and staff members, approaching a board member to vent frustrations or chat about challenges is as easy as standing next to them in the coffee queue at the local footy match or running into them at the hardware store or bakery.

One of the key questions board members can ask themselves to remind them to “swim in their lane” is this: What expectation are we instilling in the volunteer or staff member regarding the likelihood that we will act upon their information?

An incidental encounter like this can be useful in provoking us to consider why the volunteer or staff member is mentioning their grievance to us in this way.

Does the organisation have an adequate complaints policy?

Does the policy make clear how volunteers and staff can give feedback to the organisation or board?

Does the organisation have a strong communications practice, such that if managers hear about problems they communicate them upwards, and they come to the board?

Does the organisation have a psychologically safe culture, such that volunteers and staff feel comfortable sharing their concerns with managers, rather than going to the board?

The board is responsible for ensuring that the organisation is sustainable into the future, which requires concern for the health of the whole organisation, not the navigation of each individual qualm.

When a board member passes information to the organisational leadership, they can do so from a position of trust ("I told the complainant they should share this with their manager") or from a position of undermining ("I told the complainant I would fix this problem for them").

Strategic oversight requires strong trust that the culture and direction set by the board will be navigated and implemented appropriately on the operational level.

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