Towards Generative Governance

If we want to make sport better, we need to know better.

After completing hundreds of governance presentations over the past 30 years, one of the most common comments we hear from volunteers is “we didn't sign up for this". “This” being a placeholder for managing risks, navigating crises, and dealing with low trust. While we appreciate the sentiment, we would argue that the role of Directors is to deal with the complexities of governing.

And governing a 21st Century Sport Organization is not for the faint of heart.

This blog is being shared to help elevate the conversation as leaders look for better ways of collaborating as we work through this much-needed transition. Drawn from our extensive knowledge of the sport system, our experience in providing good governance training, and our practical support to sport leaders and Boards, we are offering our views to help modernize governance practices and to provide more hope-filled solutions.

The role of a fiduciary, which we define as “the person who is required to act for the benefit of another person (organization) on all matters within the scope of their relationship, and one who owes the duties of good faith, trust, confidence and candour” is to mitigate risk, provide oversight, ensure sufficient resourcing, manage public expectations, and be a trustworthy ambassador for the organization. In our experience, the vast majority of decision-makers in the over 34,000 sport organizations in Canada are well-intentioned volunteers who don't have the knowledge and time to work through the complexities of managing a modern-day sport organization. That is why we created Governance Essentials, an online governance 101 learning experience to equip volunteer directors with the knowledge to help them elevate their roles as fiduciaries.

Sport is a complex system that relies on the commitment of volunteers to support its growth. As the sector continues to evolve, it is strategic and wise to assess our way of being as Directors and to ensure a shared understanding of what good governance means in principle and how we translate this into inspired practice. To be progressive sport organizations, leaders must commit to supporting their Boards in ongoing professional learning sessions to expand their thinking as they evolve and adapt to our shifting environment. The world is changing dramatically. The environment we are in is forcing leaders to re-imagine various ways of governing, leading, coaching and working. Old paradigms and management styles are creating conflict and emerging priorities to finally make sport more inclusive are inviting new ways of thinking, problem-solving, and planning.

To better meet this moment, sport organizations are being invited to shift away from a more “hands-on management” style Board to one that is “generative”. While this can be a difficult journey, especially in the current VUCA environment (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous), the status quo is no longer tenable.

Relevant Governance Trends

Here are a few governance nuggets that we share  to help broaden perspectives:

  • The leading practices that a 21st Century Sport Organization must rely on are vastly different than what was required even a decade ago. Leaders must put in place policies, procedures, programs and measurement practices that are based on sound legal requirements and more importantly, reflect high ethical standards. You simply can’t have one without the other.
  • In order for sport organizations to fully understand the impact they are having, they are turning to a broader way of measuring performance. We call it the triple bottom line of measuring money (how we are resourcing ourselves), medals (one of our most important outcomes in sport), and morals (the lived experience of the people we are here to serve).
  • Paying attention to macro trends that are impacting how sport is being managed and directed is a necessity. The most pressing ones we are paying attention to include the professionalization of sport, the shift in volunteerism, global disruptions and crises related to safety, match-fixing, EDII, and conflicts of interest.
  • Beyond focusing on managing by objective, there is a shift towards holistic and humanistic practices that we have been advocating for since 2011 called Management by Values (see below).
  • There is a shift away from hands-on operational boards towards more generative-focused boards that must focus on:
    • Having and using your organization’s governance policies to inform decisions.
    • Ensuring proper oversight that includes having the necessary legal framework in place to meet funder and membership expectations.
    • Ensuring the organization has the means to communicate with confidence fosters trust among the membership.
    • Ensuring that the organization is creating inclusive pathways for people to be involved at all levels and foster a sense of belonging.
    • Reflecting an ethos of care and risk management in all decisions including safeguarding the physical, emotional and psychological health of participants.
    • Ensuring that leaders and directors are attending to the culture of the organization – which can be supported by asking generative-based questions.  

Relationship between Management by Values and Generative Boards

As we continue to work with Boards, we are seeing a relationship between leaders who are adopting a Management by Values approach and the kind of Board structure required to deal with this increasingly VUCA environment.  Management science teaches us that leaders have evolved away from a focus on MBI (Management by Instruction) and MBO (Management by Objective) towards an inclusive ethic of MBV (Management by Values).  We are equally seeing the same shift in how Boards are being structured – albeit this shift is primarily at the national level.

It might be helpful to take a trip down memory lane. In the early days of modern-day sport, there was almost an exclusive reliance on volunteer Directors to focus not only on overseeing the organization but also doing the work (Operational/ Management Board). These Boards are often focused on managing through the tyranny of the immediate, have very little time to think about the future, and are kept busy putting out fires. These directors are leading by doing and we see many community sport organizations reflect this 'way of governing'.

Next up is a Policy Board that ensures that the organization has the necessary resources to accomplish its outcomes and does so by focusing on governing policies to support its work. This approach is connected to an MBO style of leadership and in our experience, we believe that this is how most NSOs and MSOs are currently governed. Leaders are focused on accomplishing stated strategic outcomes knowing that the Board will hold their feet to the fire on behalf of the membership. There are benefits to this form of governance and there are risks too. In some cases, Boards adopt a completely ‘hands-off’ approach and let the staff run the show. In other cases, Directors want to get completely involved in the work plans because that is their level of comfort. This creates unnecessary conflict between the Directors – those that want to focus on policy and risk mitigation and strategy and those that simply aren’t comfortable in that space. It can also create conflict with staff who have been hired to do the work of the organization.  

A refreshing approach to governance and where Sport Law believes Sport Organizations need to move towards is becoming generative in its thinking. Generative Boards are focused on the future as a ‘promise to the next generation' and are mitigating risks by living and aligning with values. These Boards are responding to a VUCA environment from a place of strategic sense-making and deep wisdom (reasonableness and knowledge acquired through experience). These Boards support the Staff by asking powerful questions, communicating with members, and holding inclusive discussions that support and oversee the implementation of the vision.

Generative Boards are adept at being able to be strategic fiduciaries that not only ensure adequate resourcing but also pay attention to the cultural climate of the organization.

Towards a Shared Vision

To become more generative, Directors must be clear on their reason for volunteering. We recommend that Directors continue to invest in the strength of their relationship by sharing why they are serving as Directors and how they see their contribution to supporting the vision of the organization. This focuses the Board on supporting staff in mission-focused ways including asking powerful questions, doing risk analysis, inquiring about engagement processes, reviewing stated values, and exploring scenarios. Some examples of generative questions by the Board would include:

  • What would happen if we lost all of our funding?
  • Who we might collaborate with to offer a new program?
  • What do we need to know about this situation before we make a decision?
  • In what ways do our values inform our choices?
  • What is the biggest risk affecting the organization?
  • What can we learn from this experience?
  • What is the trust level between our organization and our membership? How do we know?
  • Does the budget reflect our mission, vision and values?
  • Is this decision ethical? How do we know?
  • How do we expand the essence of this great idea?
  • What other generative question might you have?

Board Norms

As part of any healthy group functioning, principles of engagement (or rules of the pool) support better collaboration. We are shocked that so many Boards we support have not created shared language to ensure they are setting their collaboration up for success. Some examples of norms we’ve helped clients create include:

  • Staying curious through an open mind and heart
  • Maintaining confidentiality
  • Understanding the context through powerful questioning
  • Adopting the platinum rule – treat people the way they want to be treated (the golden rule is treating people the way you want to be treated … which creates all kinds of assumptions doesn’t it?)
  • Allow for reflection time during meetings so that introverted people can contribute more easily
  • While we invite people to grapple internally with differences of opinion, we commit to being united and speaking with one voice externally
  • What other norms do we want to agree to?

Roadmap to Ongoing Success

As sport leaders continue to look for ways to navigate these complex waters, we offer some of the following steps to support a healthier transition:

  • Have an external facilitator support the Board’s efforts to become more generative
  • Ensure all Directors are trained in governance … please check out Governance Essentials for more information
  • Ensure each Director has clarity on their role and responsibilities through an effective onboarding process
  • Conduct a Board evaluation each year to monitor how they are progressing
  • Create a series of Board facilitated conversations that could explore a range of topics and trends including identifying leading Board practices (Agenda, Resolving Conflict, Board evaluation, Board oversight and monitoring, Risk Mitigation, Nominations Committee Practices; exceptional communications, team building, etc.)
  • Review the effectiveness of Board Committees and ensure proper oversight is practiced
  • Create a ‘cheat sheet’ with Mission, Vision, Values, and Board Norms to maintain momentum and hold the Board’s feet to the fire
  • Organize your Board resolutions so they clearly link to the organization’s strategic goals and mission, vision, values

Professor Sandra Kirby, a retired Olympic rower, believes that a single solution is not what is needed to deal with the current complexity in the sport environment. She shared that Canada’s sports system is in need of governance reform, beginning with how NSOs and other organizations constitute their boards. “We need to be looking for different kinds of leaders,” she said. “In many sports, if you were good at the sport you played, you go on the board. That is your credential. But it may not be the best way to build a board that is competent at creating proper governance.”

Here's what we believe to be true.

What we most need are volunteer directors who believe in the mission of the organization, bring a specialized skill, are free from conflict of interest (or are self-aware enough to declare the conflict when it presents itself), and can lead with values. These leaders already exist in the sport ecosystem but have felt shunned because they have spoken out or haven’t conformed to the old ‘rules of the pool’. If we want better sport, we need more informed, diverse and authentic leaders.

We hope this blog provides some additional ways for Boards to elevate their game.  Drop us a line at and let us know what you might like for us to write about next.

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