I recently had a conversation with a philanthropist who is an experienced non-profit director on the subject of the most common mistake that both commercial and philanthropic boards make. We agreed on the following:
The presumption of consensus on the board when it does not exist.
The reason this occurs so often is because many directors do not take the time to speak with their colleagues individually in between board meetings to review important open issues and determine where everyone stands in advance of the actual meeting. This is compounded by the passage of time between meetings, especially given that most directors, particularly those on non-profit boards, have plenty of other items on their busy agendas that push a friendly phone call on a non-urgent matter to the bottom of the pile.
What may appear to be clear in the immediate aftermath of the last board meeting may fade in importance and, therefore, share of mind, over several weeks. An individual director may also assume that another director, or the CEO, has taken ownership of resolving a particular issue when this has not, in fact, occurred.
How do you fix this? Communicate. Take the initiative to reach out to each of your board colleagues and take their temperature on various issues so that you can calibrate if everyone is on the same page or not. You might think that everyone agrees and learn otherwise after a couple of phone calls.
The downside of not being proactive can be great, especially when small issues become big ones because you mis-judged how your board colleagues would react to your position on a an important strategic or financial matter.