We’re officially in the dog days of summer. I like summer. I like dogs. So bring on the dog days.
As the old song said, ‘Roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, those days of soda and pretzels and beer.’
This part of the year has always been a time to relax, get away with the family (and the family dog), do some light reading, and generally not be bothered with what is going on in the world around us. This year, that’s exceptionally hard to do. Especially the part about ignoring what is going on in the world around us. That’s basically impossible.
I guess you could say that, this year, the dog days of summer are ruff!
Seems like the perfect time to ask Alice Sayant, co-founder of DirectorPrep.com, to be our guest blogger!
Why are they called dog days anyway? Common conjecture would have it that the name comes from weather that ‘isn’t fit for a dog’ or heat that is so extreme it drives dogs mad.
But I don’t trust common conjecture. I’ve always enjoyed finding out the history – the real story that explains why things are the way they are. Not only is it enjoyable, but these days it’s easy to do, courtesy of your favorite search engine.
When I join a board of directors, I like to take the same approach. I like to dig into the history a bit, find out how the organization originated, what it’s been through, and how it’s come to be what it is today. More about that later …
First, what did I find out about the dog days of summer? To my surprise, the phrase has nothing to do with the summertime habits of Fergus, our senior Scottish Terrier, or any other dog for that matter. (By the way, that’s not Fergus in the photo at the top of the page. He is much too dignified to appear that way!)
The dog days refer to the time during which Sirius, a particularly bright star, rises and sets with the sun, shining during the daylight hours and staying hidden at night. This star, also known as the dog star or Alpha Canis Majoris (canis being Latin for dog), is responsible for the origin of the expression dog days.
Sirius was known to ancient astronomers, who named it after Orion’s dog from Greek mythology. When it disappeared from the night sky each year, just around the time the weather got unbearably hot, the ancient Greeks and Romans blamed the dog star for the sweltering weather. They had grim feelings about Sirius, associating it with the outbreak of insufferable heat and fever.
The phrase dog days endured for millenia, entering the English language in the 1500s. In ancient times, the dog days corresponded roughly to the summer solstice, however now they fall later in the year. The exact dates of the dog days depend on your latitude, but this year they began around July 22nd and end around August 22nd .
I like this story – the blend of astronomy, mythology and superstition. I like that we are still using the phrase today, even though most of us know next to nothing about the stars in the night sky. I even like that we’ve come to associate the dog days with our pets. It’s gratifying and helpful to know how we got here, why we still use the phrase today.
In the same way that it can be useful to know where everyday phrases come from, a sound understanding of an organization’s history can be valuable to board members. When new directors join a board, they are getting on a moving bus. Every organization has come from somewhere, even though it may now be going some place else. Understanding where an organization has come from is a critical aspect of being able to guide it safely to its destination.
One advantage to understanding history is to avoid making the same mistakes. As the saying goes,
‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.'
Another advantage comes from including a historical perspective into the board's strategic thinking. The last thing board directors want to do is speak or act as though anything occurring before today is of no consequence. If the board and the CEO ignore or deny the past, they can easily undermine their own change efforts. Being critical of the past is counter-motivational to those who are asked to execute the change – the same people who bought into and helped build the past that is now being denigrated.
In addition, if directors lack an understanding of the organization's history and its past operating environment, they will have little ability to push back when, in response to a suggestion or request, management responds, 'We tried that before and it didn’t work.’ (Not that I’ve ever heard that one before.)
A little context goes a long way to understanding where the organization is now and how it got here. History is important for new directors as they try to get a handle on the organization’s culture – history and culture are closely linked. Ideally, this information should come forward during a new director’s orientation. If the information is not forthcoming, new directors can take charge of their own onboarding process and proactively seek it out.
They should look for answers to questions such as:
I’d like to share a couple of examples with you – examples drawn from boards that I currently serve on.
One night in June 1844, two canoes glided silently to the shore of the Red River. A small group of people waited to greet the travelers. Four women, members of the Sisters of Charity of Montreal - known as the Grey Nuns - had made the gruelling trip from Montreal to the small prairie settlement of Saint Boniface. Their 1800-mile trip, in canoes paddled by the voyageurs, lasted 58 days and required 150 portages. They traveled in the cold and rain, living in wet clothes, eating bad food, harassed day and night by mosquitoes, encountering snakes, and sleeping outdoors.
Their religious community had been founded in 1737 to help, care for, and comfort all those who were in distress and in need. So, when the bishop invited them to come to the colony to provide education and help to the settlement’s girls and women, naturally they came.
Once here, they realized that the colony needed more than just education. They couldn’t ignore the suffering of people who were ill and infirm. Soon, nursing became one of their main occupations. They started with home visits, then opened a hospital room in their convent. In 1871, they opened the first hospital in Western Canada.
Today that hospital is one of the largest tertiary care hospitals in the province, with 3,500 staff and 340 doctors with admitting privileges.
I am honored to be a member of the hospital’s board of directors. Last year we embarked on a strategic planning exercise. To kick off the process, our board chair painted a powerful verbal picture of that historic canoe trip. He described the landscape that the women would have seen and the conditions they would have endured. When he was finished, every board member was imbued with the passion to preserve and honor the legacy of the Grey Nuns. Their sheer courage, their grit and determination, their compassion, and their entrepreneurial zeal left us awestruck.
Their spirit is reflected in every page of the new strategic plan – a document that offers inspiration and encouragement to the hospital’s staff, patients and community.
Forty years after the arrival of the Grey Nuns, in a community of about 3500 people to the west of Winnipeg, seven men decided to form a fire insurance company to offer local farmers some protection.
The fur trade had given way to the grain trade. Steam was being harnessed for use in agriculture, replacing horses and oxen. The national railway, which went through the town, was only a year away from completion. This, along with new settlers from Ontario and Great Britain, fuelled the growth of the little town, which by then had several businesses and churches.
At its formation, the company had 31 policyholders. The first company manager ran the business out of his house. The company grew quickly, but the manager did not last long, absconding with company funds after four years in the job. Nothing like a good company scandal!
The following quote from the company history sheds light on the company’s culture to this day:
“The early Directors were required to take personal loans to cover claims and operating expenses until the yearly assessments could be collected. … The risk to the Directors was reduced by the fact they and the community shared in the losses. A fire was a major event in the early farmers' lives and the isolation of farm families developed a certain kinship and concern for neighbors. When a house or barn burned, the community, including the Directors and policy holders, would help to rebuild it. This helped to defray company costs and kept the assessment levy low.”
Today, the company provides protection to 133,000 policyholders across most provinces. The company’s annual report proudly states, ‘We’ve been around a long time. We’re not just closely tied to the communities we serve. We’ve faced adversity alongside them since the very beginning.’
And, indeed, as a board member I can attest that the company’s ties to its community, and its culture of mutuality, remain strong and vibrant to this day. These are factors that have been taken into consideration in every significant decision that I have been a part of since joining the board. Understanding how they got to be that way has been vital to my ability to fulfill my role as a director.
When the dog days are over, and you’re back in the office (or home office), I encourage you to delve into the history of the organizations you serve. You might just learn something you didn’t know before, something that will lead to that Aha! moment when you finally understand why things are the way they are.
I’d like to thank Alice for offering her insights about organizational history … and dog days. Here’s what I took away:
Leave a comment below to get in on the conversation.
Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of DirectorPrep.com – an online hub with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help prepare for your next board meeting.
Share Your Insight: How has understanding your organization’s history benefited you as a board director?