By Eleanor Bloxham, contributor
FORTUNE — Our nation’s number one problem is jobs — and much of the discussion on jobs today focuses on what government can do to solve the problem.
When I ask CEOs and directors about their boardroom discussions related to creating jobs, for example, they often say they focus on where to locate their companies based on the tax incentives provided by various state and local governments. Larger firm directors say boardroom discussions on jobs center on favorable tax rates so they can repatriate international profits to create jobs.
These are old, familiar solutions that look to government assistance to solve the problems of business and the economy. But we are faced with new realities today: governments at all levels (federal, state, local) are stretched financially to the breaking point.
So the real question is what, without government assistance, can the overseers of U.S. corporations do to help solve the national demand for jobs?
Perhaps there is room for hope. We have an untapped reservoir of talent to solve job creation problems in this country — corporate boards — and we must tap that reservoir now.
A recent survey by McKinsey & Co. suggests that corporate board members are not satisfied with their performance as corporate overseers.According to the global survey of 1,597 board members — 31% of whom were board chairs — only 3% believed that “the quality of [the] board’s overall performance” was excellent.
If you believe top leadership matters at all to a company’s performance, imagine what could happen if we could improve boards’ capabilities. Imagine if we could get to the level where, rather than 3%, closer to 20 or 30% of all boards were, in fact, doing an excellent job. Imagine the impact that could have on the world’s economies.
The solutions are not out of reach. Nearly half of the board members surveyed by McKinsey agreed on the ways boards can do more and tap more of their own capacity. The directors surveyed believed “more time spent on company matters,” “more appropriate mix of skills/backgrounds among board members,” and “better people dynamics that enable tough, constructive boardroom discussions” were the most effective ways to improve overall board performance.
If you think about it, the solutions the board members recommended are related. If corporate overseers can’t — and aren’t — having “tough, constructive boardroom discussions,” they won’t be able to effectively address what it would take to upgrade the board’s membership or spend more time on company matters.
With boards, as in much of life, the way people relate to each other trumps most everything else in determining successful outcomes. Tough, constructive discussions are a necessary precondition to solving corporate problems and they are required if we are to have any hope of solving the national demand for good jobs.
So, how do we address the ability of boards to grapple with difficult boardroom issues and make a real difference to corporations and the larger economy?
Some corporations have sought to solve the problem by addressing the leadership structure of the board itself.
A new report by Deloitte showed that 40% of S&P 500 boards of directors in 2010 had separate chairs (i.e. the CEO and chair were different people), up from 23% seven years earlier.
But while a separate chair is increasingly viewed as important to good governance, there is a growing recognition that this is but one stop on the path to more effective board leadership. In February, the Millstein Center on Corporate Governance at Yale produced a working paper to begin to address the effectiveness of working relationships between board chairs and CEOs. That working relationship is central to establishing the kind of clear-sighted dialogue required in boardrooms today.
Whatever the fix for board leadership and corporate oversight, clearly 3% excellence will not do. Not when our economic needs are so great and not while the talent to achieve real excellence exists. Boards must lead in these times — not stand mesmerized by the siren calls to outsource and downsize (See: The U.S. has waged a war on jobs). There is real hope if we seize the challenge and put jobs on the corporate board agenda.
Corporate overseers of U.S.-domiciled companies have the capacity to assume responsibility for the success of the U.S. economy. They can do more to improve the long term economic viability of the corporations for whom they are stewards while serving their country as well. The talent to solve our problems exists but, as with the rest of the nation, is either unemployed or under-employed when it comes to developing the long-term solutions we need.
It’s time to put boards to work.
Eleanor Bloxham is CEO of The Value Alliance and Corporate Governance Alliance (http://thevaluealliance.com), a board advisory firm.