Sunday, September 21, 2014

Should I say yes? Observing, assessing fit before accepting a nonprofit board invitation

(Purchased from Bigstock Photo)

Should I say yes to this nonprofit board invitation? Will I be a good fit with this group? Can I make a real contribution to its work? Will I enjoy working with this board?

This week, I've been exploring what it takes to be a healthy and high-functioning nonprofit board with a new group of friends interested in the sector. In those discussions, we're talking about meeting agendas that help boards focus on governance. We're also spending some time considering the group dynamics that allow that structure to flourish. Our focus on the revolutionary board framework, Governance as Leadership, requires a truly different approach to the work and a culture where members feel free, safe, and empowered to lead.

Something I almost always recommend as an effective board practice - and common sense for the prospective member - inevitably arose in the conversation. That advice: visit one or more board meetings before an invitation is extended by the board or accepted by the prospect. Usually, it's more from the perspective of the board ensuring that it's making the right call in pursuing this recruit. In this case, my rationale for the suggestion is encouraging the prospect to observe and evaluate whether the environment is (a) healthy, (b) productive and (c) a place where he/she can find a satisfying and fulfilling fit.

That left me thinking: If I were again that prospective board member, what would I look for today? What would help me understand the environment better so that I could make an informed decision? The resulting list is entirely too long to be realistic, but a few musts did emerge. Here are some of the observation essentials that unfolded.

The structure/work

What is the room set-up? Does it feel comfortable and conducive to the work required? Does it have a "corporate" feel? Does it feel informal, maybe overly informal, maybe even a little chaotic? Is there space for everyone, with whatever they need to participate fully waiting for them? Does it look like the organization is prepared for the important work that is about to take place there? Is this an environment that appeals to you?

Who sits where? Is that designated for them (e.g., name plates already set up)? Do they move, or do members each have their "seats" (identified in multiple observations, which I routinely recommend)?  Does this match the level of formality in the board's interactions observed in the meeting?

Do the board members come prepared for the work ahead? Are they ready to discuss the lead meeting topics when they arrive? Do some hem and haw and shuffle papers looking for information needed to respond? If so, is that because the information they seek was waiting for them on the boardroom table or because they are opening the board packets sent earlier at the meeting?  (Either scenario is a board-level problem - they aren't getting what they need in a timely manner or they aren't held accountable, by their peers, for taking the work seriously.)

What does the agenda look like? Do reports about events past dominate it? Are there big, mission-focused questions with plenty of time to explore them? Ask a board member: how representative is this of the typical agenda? The agenda is the single best predictor of whether you will be governing or wasting time on details with no real opportunity for impact.

What kinds of questions are asked? By whom? Does the conversation they spark go anywhere? Do the questions and resulting discussions lead to deeper insights, meaningful decisions, commitments to action? Do the questions posed excite or interest you?

What role does the CEO play in the meeting? Does he/she offer multiple reports on different topics? Is he/she the first to respond to questions posed? Does the ED seem to lead part (or all) of the meeting? What does this person's participation suggest about the nature of the board/CEO relationship?

How are committees involved in meetings? Does their work advance the board's governance responsibilities, or does it mirror management functions? Does it deepen board understanding of issues and inform board decision making? Does their work seem fun and/or intellectually stimulating to you?

Do they make - and use - opportunities to stop and reflect on what they are considering? On what they have accomplished? Do they appreciate their work, gather their thoughts, bring appropriate closure to conversations that are ongoing?

Did they learn something new about the organization, their mission area, or their work as board members?

Do most - preferably all - members leave with at least one item for follow up at the end of the meeting? Was there evidence that they came prepared to share what they committed to do last time? Do they own the work, individually as well as collectively?

Boardroom dynamics

Does the board chairperson lead the meeting? Is that leadership effective: does the board stay focused, is broad participation facilitated, are members expected to fulfill responsibilities? Is this a peer-driven, peer-accountable leadership team?

Is the board chairperson cognizant of who's engaged in board deliberations? Does he/she make conscious efforts to facilitate full participation? Does he/she draw out those who are quiet, reign in the chatty? Are the overbearing members handled respectfully but decisively?

Are members respectful but unafraid to challenge each other in service to their larger purpose? Do they welcome and consider multiple viewpoints, or do they seem to reach one "clear" answer too quickly and easily? If the latter, how closely does that "clear" answer resemble what the ED has in mind?

Do all individual members appear invested in the board's and organization's success? How do they demonstrate that ownership?

Do you see yourself having a place at this table in the future?

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Avoiding questions that must be asked: Why our nonprofit boards evade inquiry

 Purchased from Bigstock Photo

If our boards know that asking questions that define and advance the better future we all seek is their ultimate domain, if they long for board meetings that engage their brains and their spirits, if they want to know they're making a difference, why do so many resist asking the kinds of questions that create those pathways?

As I've been recuperating, I've had ample time to pose a few questions of my own. I've also been revisiting a few favorite books that address those questions, including Warren Berger's remarkable A More Beautiful Question. It's in Berger's excellent resource that I found a bit of perspective on that burning question.

Berger offers four potential reasons that we "tend to avoid fundamental questioning." They ring all too familiar as I think about my own board service and about many boards I've researched or encountered. Let's see if these sound familiar to you (p. 183):

"Questioning is seen as counterproductive; it's in the answers that most people are focused on finding, because the answers, it is believed, will provide ways to solve problems, move ahead, improve life."

Let's face it, we recruit smart people to our boards - experts in their fields - to provide answers. We come to them for direction, for solutions to our problems, to improve our organizational health. A boatload of new questions may not feel particularly helpful. Yet that is where much of their greatest value to us can be found.

"The right time for asking fundamental questions never seems to present itself; either it's too soon or too late."

If anything might unwittingly add to the appeal of the mundane but easily answered board agenda items, it's probably this one. Questions about investment options, whether or not to purchase radio ads for the coming gala, if it makes sense to add a case worker to handle an influx of new clients - they have answers. Some are clearer than others. Some are more appealing than others. But they have answers. We generally can see the results of those answers within fairly short order. We know if we were on the mark or whether we made a mistake. We have feedback.

Big questions about the future direction of our communities, the impacts on lives we don't know in and in ways we can't predict, well, they're different animals. They have no optimal time or place for posing. They have no real ending - likely not even within our individual lifetimes (ending hunger or domestic violence, for example).  They are big, challenging, and seemingly impossible to tackle. There's never a perfect time to ask or respond. So we (probably) don't.

"Knowing the right question to ask is difficult (so better not to ask at all)."

It's a hazard of the previous obstacle: the challenges we address, via the visions and missions we define and advance, may have multiple paths. Some paths are better than others, even ideal. Some are different but more or less equal. Some of those paths are most assuredly wrong.

In one case, my fellow board members and I wasted three years wrangling with a wrong question.  Only after a new board member joined the conversation and pointed that out were we able to shift our focus and begin to grapple with our real problem.

The situation demanded that we ask questions; we would have been shirking our responsibilities if we didn't. But because we weren't used to pressing each other to think critically and around larger issues of mission and sustainability, we were completely unprepared to hone our attention in on what ultimately was broken. We get credit for not ignoring red flags, but we failed to ask the right question until it was almost too late.

"Perhaps most significant: What if we find we have no good answers to the important questions we raise? Fearing that, many figure it's better not to invite that additional uncertainty and doubt into our lives."

...or our boardrooms. We may be smart people. We may be community leaders. We may be downright individually brilliant.  But for the kinds of questions that effective nonprofit governance requires us to ask, there may very well be no good answers - at least for now. They are multi-generational problems that most likely require multi-generational responses and solutions. Long term, that is comforting to know. We shouldn't assume we've failed if there still is work to do when our term ends. But in the moment, it can wreak havoc on our motivation and our sense of individual and collective efficacy.

Bottom line: there are no easy answers to the questions we simply must ask. But that doesn't mean we don't try.  We must try.

We find ways to break the big questions into more manageable segments - still grounded in the larger vision and our specific mission in reaching it, but contained for the time being in ways that we can see, grasp and address in some meaningful way.

We also can commit to making question-asking the centerpiece of our board work. If we don't ask the questions that stretch thinking, if we don't ask ourselves and our leadership partners "what if," if we don't engage in creative inquiry and critical thinking as a core component of nonprofit governance, who will?

Monday, September 1, 2014

The work of nonprofit boards: What's possible when they are empowered to govern

The road back to the writing life after long-overdue surgery earlier this summer has been a surprisingly challenging one. This morning, I woke up with a bit of inspiration from the American holiday. Here's a little ditty in support of the important work that our nonprofit boards are called upon to do. I'd love to hear your thoughts, additions, etc.

(Purchased from Bigstock Photo)

As my fellow U.S. citizens and I acknowledge the value of the American worker today, I can't help but stop for a moment to reflect on the value of the work of our nonprofit boards - the real work of nonprofit governance, when we empower and support them in that effort.

What's possible,  for us and those we serve, when boards are able to focus on the critically important work of nonprofit governance? Here are a few thoughts that come to mind for me:

  • We have ongoing access to the deep expertise and varied talents that individual members bring to the board. We learn from their wisdom, shared freely and in the spirit of expanding our impact. They do so willingly, because they are respected and engaged in ways that are personally and professionally appropriate.
  • We stretch our thinking via interaction and debate informed by the wide range of life experiences and perspectives around the boardroom table.
  • We welcome - and, indeed, solicit - questions that facilitate that expanded thinking. We know those questions lead to richer, deeper, and more informed decisions as we move toward the compelling vision of the future that drives us.
  • That vision, and our specific mission/role in making it happen, are equally rich and high in impact, because our board (which holds ultimate accountability for their definition and advancement) has grounded us in community need while also demanding that we reach beyond what feels possible in the limited moments of today.
  • We move closer toward that vision and mission, because our board holds us accountable for programs and performance that advance them. We welcome that accountability, not only to our board but to the community that they represent.
  • We engage in critical thinking - and occasionally pointed questioning - as a healthy part of that accountability process. That work begins in the boardroom, where robust and respectful debate around complex topics is the norm.
  • We enjoy ever-broadening connections to new groups of stakeholders and supporters - and credibility with those groups - thanks to the personal and professional networks that our board members make accessible to us. 
  • We extend our impact on public policy changes required to fulfill our mission, because our board members regularly make our case with legislators, city council members, Congressional delegations, and other opinion leaders.
  • We unleash on our community - and the world - a committed, passionate group of advocates devoted to us far longer than their board terms.

Now, what will we do to support our boards and help ensure that they are able to focus their gifts of time and expertise on this work?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Quotable nonprofit governance: Reflect on energy-draining board members

"Quotable Nonprofit Governance" is a new series sharing awe-inspiring and instructive insights from several of my favorite nonprofit board resources. My goal is to not only share great quotes but to also suggest ways to use them to inform your own approach to governance.

Okay, so this one isn't technically a "nonprofit" quote. It also isn't a quote from the type of resource used as inspiration for the rest of the series. 

But I couldn't resist, because it asks us to reflect (the point of this series) on one of the chief obstacles to highest board performance: those energy-draining members that divert attention from our work and make the service experience at times deeply unpleasant.

I hope I've never been "that" member (though I know I've had my moments when I definitely added to someone's discomfort). But I've certainly served with members who simply dragged us down. I suspect you've served with your own version of "that" member. You know how deeply, terribly frustrating the experience can be - and how detrimental it is to fulfilling the board's governance responsibilities.

The source of that tweet is important here, and to my larger point in sharing it. Dan Rockwell's Leadership Freak blog is a constant source of information and inspiration on its title topic. (Subscribe. You won't regret it.) The larger point: energy-draining board members and the troubles they bring are a leadership issue. They must be addressed by leadership. 

That's not easy, especially in an environment where we're contributing time and talent to do good work. But that's also why we (especially board leaders) must be willing to address the challenges to our effectiveness and productivity, even/especially when one of our own is "the challenge."

I've written several posts on nonprofit board dynamics that may be of value here. In the meantime, and in the spirit of this series, here are a couple of questions for reflection:

Do we have interpersonal issues that keep our board from functioning fully, effectively, and creatively?

What do we need to do about them?

Monday, August 4, 2014

Quotable nonprofit governance: Building board member community

"Quotable Nonprofit Governance" is a summer series sharing awe-inspiring and instructive insights from several of my favorite nonprofit board resources. My goal is to not only share great quotes but to also suggest ways to use them to inform your own approach to governance.

Over the last two years, I've become more convinced than ever that this is a major, missing piece of the board performance puzzle. 

Not that we don't have other significant challenges - some of our own making, others not. But the fact is, too many nonprofits bring bright, committed, talented leaders into their boardrooms only to have them wallow and wither on the governance vine.

Why is that?

Gail's quote (from her marvelous book) reminds us that when boards are a team - a community - their potential to collaborate, to create, to envision expands exponentially. But how often do we take the time to create that community? To get to know each other? To find and build upon our common visions of what is possible? To do more than get together long enough to check off the items on our overcrowded agendas?

I fold broader issues of board dynamics into the concept of community. Governance is not one, non-stop Kumbaya moment (as much as that might make the process easier). True communities deal with the highs and lows of working closely together, of debating sometimes thorny issues, of bouncing around wide-ranging (and sometimes contradictory) visions of the future, of challenging each other to be the best we can be so that we can collectively reach our dreams. They not only survive, they often thrive - and succeed.

Questions for reflection with your board:

Is our board a community? How do we know?

If the answer is no, what is missing? What would make the difference?

What can a successful board community accomplish for our nonprofit? For our community?

Monday, July 28, 2014

Reflective nonprofit board practice: Stop, think, and create something wonderful



"Stop, think, and don't do something stupid!"

This Robert Bea quote opens Daniel Forrester's book, Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking In Your Organization

Bea, professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California at Berkely, was addressing his students and drawing from a long career working with industry - especially industry in the midst of environmental crises. But he could very well have been speaking to our local nonprofit boards when he uttered those seven fateful words.

In many respects, Bea's call to his students also describes the ultimate bottom line for nonprofit governance: be thoughtful and don't screw up anything when you're gathered around the boardroom table. But he also provides the foundation for Forrester to launch what promises to be a compelling call to reflective practice in a world where action and distraction dominate.

I'm still reading Forrester's book (and impressed by what he's sharing so far). But the opening passages sparked such a strong reaction that I simply had to share and react.

Forrester lays out the challenge that most of us face: living and working in a world filled with distractions, demands on our energy and attention, and a constant flurry of activity that is far from conducive to effective action. It's an environment where, at the end of the day of "busyness," the best most of us can hope for is to get through the night with enough energy to do it all over again.

"It makes us feel wanted and useful," Forrester writes, "but at the same time we feel drained and uncontrolled."

That, my friends, is the state in which too many of our board members enter our meetings. We're tired - sometimes literally so, in meetings that begin at the end of already long days. We're distracted and mentally exhausted by demands placed on us, not only in this lead volunteer role but in our work and personal lives.

It's also a factor in the familiar refrains of being "too busy" to sit down, breathe, and ask ourselves the big questions required of us. We too often enter the work of the board already tired and stretched - and impatient when someone tries to suggest what Forrester says we need most (especially when dealing with world-changing issues and challenges).

"We are living in an age of immediacy that can't be singularly managed with instantaneous responses. For these reasons, stepping away from the problem - and structuring time to think and reflect - just may prove the most powerful differentiation to remain relevant and survive."

Forrester reminds us of what we all know to be true, even if we don't act like we do: "the best decisions, insights, ideas, and outcomes result when we take sufficient time to think and reflect." This raises a critical question for organizations:

"Will we elevate the importance...of consistently adopting think time and reflection, or will we pass it over as our work pace gallops to a new, dizzying speed?

As our boards increase their awareness and commitment to addressing fundamental questions about the future, will we heed Forrester's call to step back and commit to the thoughtfulness and reflection that the work demands? Or will we simply add "big questions" to our already mile-long checklist of tasks to cram into already overpacked meetings?

Will we realize that the complex work that can't be answered in one quick vote is where our ultimate impact can be made and felt? Will we respond by clearing those agendas of the superficial (and managerial) tasks so that we can engage in the ongoing, thoughtful deliberation and reflection that Forrester calls on us to do?

Will we commit to governing differently? Will our peer leaders facilitate that and hold us accountable for that?

"When overworked people declare that they 'just don't have time to think,' leaders have a choice: They can settle for the status quo and declare that it's the way the world works today, or they can insist that reflection is a strategic business enabler."

In the end, Forrester tells us (what we already know), we hold the key to our future.

"The choice in how we behave is ours. So are the consequences that result from such a critical decision."

I'm overwhelmed by pretty much every other sentence as I read this excellent book. I can guarantee follow-up posts as I continue reading and processing. Building boards' capacity for reflective practice may be the single most powerful - and transforming - investment that everyone in the sector should be making. It's a strong theme throughout everything I've written so far and will continue to be so in future posts.

In the meantime, I leave you this week with this wisdom from Forrester and two questions for - yes - reflection:

What can we do to identify and reduce the counterproductive "busyness" that lies in the way we have structured our board's work?

What steps can we take - now - to begin not only adding "time for reflection" to meeting agendas, but to build a culture where thoughtful, non-rushed deliberation is both valued and expected?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Quotable nonprofit governance: Removing the unexpectedness of fun on boards

"Quotable Nonprofit Governance" is a summer series sharing awe-inspiring and instructive insights from several of my favorite nonprofit board resources. My goal is to not only share great quotes but to also suggest ways to use them to inform your own approach to governance.

Admit it. You mostly agree with it - or at least have your own board experiences where this Gail Perry quote was true.

Is having fun in the boardroom an unreasonable expectation? Is board work so inherently not fun that we've given up even trying (or know that we can - and should - try)?

In boards where this is not true, what makes the biggest difference? 

What does "fun" look like in nonprofit boardooms?

What can we do to add fun - that fuels board member passion and motivation - to board work?

(By the way, the book containing this quote is a must-read for nonprofit boards and CEOs. Gail addresses the title topic without bashing board members - actually acknowledging our legitimate needs to finding meaning and connection to the work we are called to do. Very refreshing, frankly.)