Feed the Beast

In my 25 years of military service, I spent a good deal of time on the planning staff of some high-powered generals. On one assignment I worked for what we referred to as a “fire breather.” He was high maintenance, egotistical, narcissistic, power driven, and at times tyrannical. He drove his staff to the point of burnout, with weekly firings and one-sided screaming matches the norm.

I worked 85 hours a week for a year and a half straight, with little or no vacation. I remember one year driving 20 hours non-stop from Tucson, Arizona, to Belle Fourche, South Dakota, and back to hunt deer over a three-day period because that was all the time I could have. The last five hours of the drive home were spent with my head out of the truck window, singing at the top of my lungs, trying to stay awake. I must have been quite a sight!

Our staff created a method to manage the never-ending requests from our boss.

We developed a list of the five or six items he always asked about, and we would provide this to him daily before he could ask for it. He was an information junkie, a data-driven decision maker, who, to his credit, was brilliant and could make decisions with 75-80 percent of the data. We didn’t make up data, but used our excellent sources of intelligence to provide him with views and opposing views. If there was nothing to report, we put that there—NSTR: nothing significant to report. While he never went so far as to thank us or give us any credit, we found that it helped lessen the frantic need for information and the rampant trend for misinformation to crop up. We were able to control the conversation and manage, ever so slightly, “the beast.”

When he left the unit upon receiving his fourth star, he was replaced by a saint of a man. He was nice to us, told us he appreciated us, and was the kind of officer you didn’t mind working 85 hours a week for. We mistakenly thought our workload would go way down, but it didn’t. You see, this fine general needed more information to make decisions because he was more risk averse than the previous boss. Instead of needing 75–80 percent of the information to make a decision, our new boss couldn’t pull the trigger unless he was 95 percent sure of the intelligence. As you can imagine, this beast, while friendlier than the last one, was actually more difficult to satisfy, as his appetite knew no end!

When I was the head of school, I used this “feed the beast” technique with my board.

Each Friday, I would send a very short email to the members of my board and simply used the framework of “The good, the bad, and the ugly.” You can certainly come up with your own, but that worked for me! I would try to limit the entries to three bullets (hopefully less on the last two headings) and kept the data very high level in nature. A “good” could be the selection of one of our students as a National Merit finalist, a “bad” could be the expelling of a student, and the “ugly” could be the blowing up of our ancient hot water boiler. I’d add a few comments to each in order to frame the issue and my response to it, and found that it was appreciated by the board and cost me very little time at the end of the week. The board was informed and was not caught off guard when asked about these items, and we developed better communication and trust because of it.

There is a danger to feeding the beast on a regular basis like this, as I discovered.

After a period of time, the board began to feel that they should have input on some of the decisions I was letting them know about, which in many cases, they did not. It took me a while to realize this, and a simple conversation at a board meeting about roles and responsibilities took care of that. I was also more selective about what info I put in the report in the future. Another danger is the control of the information. While I was specific about the student in the “good” section, I never put names associated in the “bad” or “ugly” headers. If it met the criteria to go to the board for decision (depending on your policy), it was in the board room that the full details were discussed. One board member forwarding this out to someone accidentally will teach you to be very careful with information!

In my current role at CSI, I provide my board with a monthly update that reports on the strategic indicators of organizational health and also highlights issues we are dealing with daily. Since the board meets quarterly, this update is very helpful in keeping the board engaged and updated on the happenings at CSI in the interim. This allows us to focus on deeper discussions during our board meetings, as they are aware of the status of the organization before they walk in the door.

This may not work for you, but in the interest of developing your board and improving communication, I’d urge you to consider how you feed your beast!

– Joel Westa

1 Comment

Filed under Governance

One Response to Feed the Beast

  1. TCP

    …great reading and great advice…

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