Three ways to build a successful Board of Directors

Advice from the CEO of Horizon Housing, a Calgary organization with a highly functioning board of directors.

February 15, 2023

Tips from one of our brilliant clients: The CEO of Horizon Housing  

In our last blog post, I unleashed a bit about the chronic dysfunction we are noticing in not-for-profit boards. It felt good to rant about it and it struck a chord with a lot of our readers.

It’s clearly an issue for a lot of organizations. I think it’s also important to point out that there are not-for-profit boards of directors that are seriously bucking that trend. One of our clients particularly stands out.

We worked with Horizon Housing, which recently merged with Forward Housing, in 2021 on the development of its five-year strategic plan. This merged organization does important and challenging work, providing affordable housing (nearly 1,650 units) to vulnerable Calgarians. We were immediately impressed with the dynamics of the board and functionality of the governance structure.

To help us understand what makes their setup so successful, we asked the CEO of Horizon Housing, Martina Jileckova, to provide some insight. What she shared with us is gold, and we can’t say it better ourselves. Here is what Martina had to say (edited slightly for brevity):

Martina Jileckova, CEO of Horizon Housing

The structure of our board is pretty standard for not-for-profits. The structure in itself isn’t what makes it functioning or not.

What makes our board successful in particular is three things:  

1. Solid foundation.

We have clear bylaws and clear policies that set up the governance framework and provide clarity on the governance style of the board. For example, some very small not-for-profits may govern with more operational-focused boards, where directors do some of the work of the organization. As you get larger and more sophisticated, with increased revenues, it becomes more important for the role of the board to be clear.

We follow a results-based governance model, which is a framework that brings a lot of clarity. It clearly outlines the role of the board, the role of management, and the responsibilities of the board chair and CEO, while allowing us to measure our progress.

It starts with a multi-year strategic plan (Robin helped prepare our most recent one). We set an aspirational vision for five years and break it down into smaller components. From there, we build annual business plans and associated budgets. It’s all approved by the board and then broken into more pieces. It allows us to measure our results against what we set out to do every year.

We also have a work plan for the board – an annual schedule of deliverables so they know what they need to do in any given year and gauge how they deliver against it.

2. Educate, educate, educate.

I can’t stress this enough. It’s so important to give the directors opportunities to educate and train on board governance. Beyond the strong foundation, it’s important that all directors have sufficient education in what it means to be a governance body. You can’t just write the instructions down and give them to people. You need to engage and provide real examples on what board governance actually means.

An important question to answer is how do you become a team? We accomplish that by providing training, education, and working through issues our directors may need to resolve. We have brave dialogue—brave discussion about issues. It’s one thing to have a strong foundation. The next level is transforming that foundation into a functional environment.  

For a board of directors, a functional environment must include a culture of collaboration. Organizations and companies put effort into team dynamics and culture, and boards should do–it’s critical to any success. If the culture of the board isn’t right, you will not see the same results.  

3. Leadership.

I cannot underestimate the role of the chair and executive committee of the board – the role of the leadership. You can have a strong foundation. You can have all the governance education and be gelling together as a team. But if you have those two elements without an effective leader, you’re missing a crucial piece of the puzzle. A strong leader should be able to run effective meetings, motivate people and deal with the difficult stuff. We are grateful for strong board leadership at Horizon Housing.

Another point worth mentioning is the importance of having clarity on job descriptions for the CEO/administration and board chair/directors. We all know what we are supposed to do, and it’s clearly stated in policies. It’s critical to have a process for conflict resolution. It’s all about the culture, communication and willingness to have a dialogue. People tend to shy away from difficult conversations. Let’s have a conversation that can be difficult to make sure we’re on the same page.

Martina, thank you. We love this and really appreciate your insight. The effectiveness of Horizon Housing’s board is especially impressive given its size. Right now, the organization has 17 directors. That is a large group of people (the result of a merger with Forward Housing) and could bring a whole pile of challenges without those crucial elements: a solid foundation, education and leadership.

We need more of this. It’s possible. They’re doing it. We can help.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

Written by
Robin Parsons

Robin has more than twenty-five years of experience as an effective leader and strategic thinker. She helps organizations have better conversations that help them work together more effectively.

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Parsons Dialogue is based in Calgary, Canada, serving clients across North America. We design and facilitate strategic processes that help teams collaborate with clarity and confidence.

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