Generative Governance: The Missing Link

By Robert Nelson, CAE

Creating rewarding experiences for board members and delivering value to the organization through board engagement were always top of mind for me as a CEO of a national trade association. When a board meets regularly, these can be difficult challenges if the board limits its scope to its fiduciary and strategic responsibilities. Governance as Leadership (Chait, Ryan, and Taylor, 2005) introduces a third mode of governance—the generative mode. When boards operate freely between the three modes of governance (fiduciary, strategic, and generative governance), Chait, et al., argue that the experience is more rewarding for the board members and the value the board delivers to the organization is greatly enhanced. I agree.

Generative thinking is what frames issues. It is where we make sense of things and define their meaning. CEOs regularly engage in generative thinking, and as individuals, most board members regularly engage in generative thinking in their day jobs. However, boards themselves rarely engage in generative thinking.

Often the CEO already frames the issues before they are presented to the board. Granted, CEOs rarely frame issues in a vacuum; CEOs often reach out to key members and advisors very early on to discuss problematic issues. It is during this early stage that sense is made out of ambiguity, data, information, and knowledge. This is where the real power of leading an organization emerges. It is where organizations define the problems from which strategies will be developed.

By engaging the board as a whole in making sense of assorted data, information, and knowledge that surround a particular issue, one is creating a scenario where boards are truly leading in partnership with the CEO. This is rewarding for the board member, as, most likely, they joined the organization to make a meaningful contribution to the work of the organization, not to provide fiduciary oversight. The diversity of perspective in the early stage of framing issues and problems is also a huge win for the organization; it helps ensure that the right problems are being addressed. It is a win for the CEO as well, as the executive gets the benefit of greater diversity of perspective, a board engaged in governing, and an assurance the she or he is working on the right problems.

CEOs demonstrate leadership by identifying potential issues, investigating those issues, framing them, and delivering some options for boards to consider as they ponder how to strategically respond to them. However, CEOs can also demonstrate leadership by introducing a new mode of governance—generative governance.

Do you think generative governance would work in your organization? Why? Why not?

Robert Nelson, CAE, is the founder of Nelson Strategic Consulting, which works with trade associations, philanthropic organizations, NGOs, and intergovernmental organizations to develop strategic solutions to challenges. He can be reached at 475-235-1210,, or through his website at Nelson is a member of NYSAE’s PR and Marketing Committee.