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Unions 21
| Blog post

Democracy alone is not the answer

By Jim McAuslan | 4 min

We should not confuse good democracy with strong governance and brilliant leadership. It has a place at the table, but by itself it will not fulfil the purpose of a union Board.

And what is that purpose? To make sure the entity that is ‘the union’ (not its component parts) is delivering value to its shareholders (the membership).

And the purpose of a Board? To answer the trinity of key questions - are we relevant, are we credible, are we visible? After 46 years of working with Boards I wished I had focussed earlier on improving in these 5 areas.

Staying small. All evidence from outside our ‘union world’ points to an optimal size of 12, yet we design democratically elegant Executive Committees that are far bigger. Reduce the numbers on the Board and if you cannot then add a smaller leadership group on top.

Investing energy as the term of office begins. Not the usual induction of ‘this is how we do things’. Use those precious first 30 days as a time for new thinking aided by external input. Encourage new committee members to end redundant traditions, maybe ask the outgoing Board what didn’t work for them.

Focussing time on the soft stuff. The best committees, in my experience, are full of: cognitive diversity that allow the broadest input of life experience, individuals who are curious and don’t see uncertainty as a weakness, colleagues respectful enough to disagree, but with buckets of laughter (it should be fun!) courageous individuals not prone to look over their shoulders at how their individual constituencies will react. Confident enough in the Board’s collective wisdom that unpopular decisions can be made.

The Chair is critical. They should focus on:

  • Building an honest relationship with the General Secretary. Jointly setting standards applied equally to Board members and staff members.

  • Setting meeting agendas that put the big issues right at the front. Too often the big stuff doesn’t get attention because you have spent hours on minutiae. Creating ‘white space’ outside Board meetings where ideas can be adventurously explored.

  • Improving the quality of Board papers. Are they clear and concise? Are risks identified? And costs?

  • Ensuring all Board members are performing because your culture is defined by the worst behaviours tolerated. Have you got agreed values and behaviours and are Board members living them? Are people reading papers before they attend and doing their own research?

  • Holding an annual review of the Board’s performance; even asking for an external input as a charity or company board might

Providing training, coaching and mentoring for the Board. No Board member arrives as the complete article. Help them develop their skills and critical thinking. There is nothing wrong with having Board time on your CV.

None of this would be delivered without ructions; but if all you ever do is all you’ve ever done, then all you’ll ever get is all you’ve ever got

Jim McAuslan was 3-times elected General Secretary of the British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) from 2002 until 2016. A reformer, Jim was previously Chair of Unions 21 and more recently has been working as an advisor to the Police Federation of England and Wales, a custodian trustee of Nautilus - the union for merchant navy officers, a founder member of Building Better Boards which aims to improve Board performance across all sectors of the economy and a mentor supporting individual leaders identify and tackle the challenges they face.

Jim's blog is part of our Giving Members Voice: Democracy series Sign up to our newsletter to keep up to date.

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