Nose In Fingers Out - is not enough

by Karen Fryday-Field, MBA, GSP, GOVERN for IMPACT CEO

Over the past two decades ‘GOVERN for IMPACT’ affiliates and our broader community of people interested in governance excellence have learned that ‘board governance’ is an unique discipline in our world. In a recent discussion of university board and president leaders, I heard governance described as “fingers out, nose in…”. You can imagine, I was horrified by this limited vision or view of what governance is or how it contributes to organizational impact.


What the speaker meant by “fingers out” was that boards should not involve themselves in one-off operational decisions… very true! The board’s role in operations is to empower operations through clarity regarding risk, desired organizational impact, and establishing any boundaries on operations. Further, when he said “nose in” – not a pretty picture – he meant that the board’s role is to be looking for significant challenges in ethics, prudence, or the lack of results achieved for the desired recipients or beneficiaries. Again, this has some truth as the board is accountable for an ethical and prudent organization which produces meaningful outcomes/results… better, however, through a logical monitoring/evaluation process… rather than sniffing around for the bad stuff.

The most concerning thing about the “fingers out, nose in” concept of governance is that it misses some of the most important dimensions of board governance starting with strategic foresight and the leadership of specifying expected organizational outcomes. The board has a significant responsibility and opportunity to really drive the organization to critical impacts now and for the future.

The board, in its articulation of desired impact, does not create these ideas in an ivory tower or in a vacuum. The board’s wisdom on strategic insight and foresight comes from critical conversations with owners, from scanning the environment to look for disrupters, from identifying opportunities to impact where there is a need, and from forming a collective ambition to have a positive impact over the long haul or as long as is needed.

We are so highly regulated these days that if all our governing boards do is ‘sniff out’ bad ‘stuff’ and keep their hands out of operations, then we really have to ask “what is the long term value of governance?”.

Board members generally come to a board table because they envision and are committed to positively contributing, to make a real difference, to creating real value or impact. If this is the case, their contribution of looking beyond the day-to-day work, to looking beyond strategy, and to look forward and as a result actively influence the organization’s purpose and its impact… this is a big part of governing successfully.

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