On Board: The Insider’s Guide to Surviving Life in the Boardroom
What can an attorney learn from a book about non-profit boards by a BBC newscaster and arts administrator? In the case of Sir John Tusa’s 2020 book, On Board: The Insider’s Guide to Surviving Life in the Boardroom, the answer is quite a lot. But first, why should legal professionals care about boards?
Most obviously, non-profit boards do a significant amount of heavy lifting in the American and British legal, social, educational, political, and cultural communities. They hire, fire, and advise CEOs. They offer strategic direction for organizations, build consensus for communities, and can be responsible for raising the funds necessary for achieving an institution’s goals. Lawyers are frequently advising boards, asked to be on boards, and, in Florida, our profession is ultimately led by a board. Non-profit boards are also the mechanism by which many of our civic spaces — those places that are not fully governmental nor fully privately owned — are governed. The decision-making power within boards is one of the reasons that corporate board diversity is such an important topic. But as we examine who is at the boardroom, we should also reflect on how the boardroom should be run.
Balance is an under appreciated organizational skill. Too much change is destabilizing, yet too little is a recipe for stagnation and decline. Too much focus on the bottom line can take the focus away from an organization’s strategic goals, but too little can lead to the end of the institution itself. Too much focus on the past makes it harder to seize new opportunities and easier to ignore structural flaws, but too little leads to a failure to learn from wisdom gained from experience.
By example and “personal learning. . . painfully acquired,” Tusa thoughtfully and candidly illustrates how boards can balance and strengthen organizations in times of crisis and transition. He details the struggles of merging colleges in London, recalibrating the storied but somber British Museum, managing the rise of American Public Radio, and revitalizing other cultural landmarks. The quality of the chairs he details range, in his words, from “the really good to the truly awful.” Throughout the frustrations, failures, and successes, Tusa is honest with himself and the reader. Too many leaders use their autobiographies to explain their decisions; Tusa spends 200 short pages examining his.
As he says in the beginning, “[n]o board I sat on was made up of stupid people, yet almost everyone made at least one significant mistake.” Sir John Tusa also shows that boards, when run with sincerity, deliberation, and trust, can lead to real and positive change. To the extent that our modern social and political conflicts stem from the failure of institutions, it is worth listening to someone who has recognized when institutions have gone astray and helped rebuild them.