Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Touching the board member's heart: Meaning making in nonprofit governance experience

Some experiences simply engrave themselves on the heart and remain there forever.  One of those experiences, for me, was preparing for and performing Handel's "Messiah"for the first time 40 years ago this month.

 I was a new high school student, learning music that would be a short-term annual tradition. What I did not anticipate was that it was far more than memorizing music so I wouldn't embarrass myself on stage. It was creating an experience, in the company of others, that expanded my heart in unexpected ways.

Today, as I think again about not just the music but the ways in which it created a common bond between friends, I can't help applying what made that special to board service. I say that, trusting that many (hopefully, most) board members already have their own transformative governance experiences. I have. Unfortunately, they have been more rare than I would have hoped.

What lessons from creating that common musical connection with others can I take and translate to a meaningful board journey for individual members? I asked myself that question and came away with these key ideas.

The promise - and delivery - of something beautiful at the end. My single voice contributed, but the true magic came when it joined many others to create the greater melody and harmonies that resulted in a work of art. That is what happens when the right mix of people, skills and perspectives come together to govern: single contributions become collective thinking and creation of something they never could accomplish alone.

Appropriate, but not impossible challenge. My choir teacher was tough. She introduced us to the world greatest music and expected us to perform it beautifully. But she never bent us to the point of breaking (even when she put us in a concert hall with hundreds of others to sing Verdi's "Requiem." In Latin.).  The collaboration required to accomplish that "something beautiful at the end" calls on everyone to reach to the edges of their capabilities of these kinds of big but not impossible challenges. That is nonprofit governance at its fullest and finest: rising and stretching to move ever closer to our inspiring missions and visions.

It also requires a leader who...

Has the commitment to the larger picture, both the promise and the challenge described above. Performing this particular work was a tradition long before I arrived at my school. It was a tradition for as long as this director taught there. She was the common thread and the lead motivator who passed on her own commitment to the music to every student who performed it for and with her. Our board leaders may not (and should not) have her longevity, but they must have her strength of commitment to advancing the common goal and the willingness to share with and engage others in that quest.

Understands what is required of everyone, individually, to succeed as a group.
Our teacher knew, note for note, what was expected of the sopranos, altos, tenors and basses. She knew exactly what she needed from every member of the orchestra. And she knew how to draw what she needed from all of us to create the masterpiece as a whole. Nonprofit board leaders may not have sheet music spelling out every single note required of all of us; but they need to understand what each member must bring to the table to ensure that discussions, deliberations and decisions lead to the best that the group has to offer.

Has high standards for reaching the bigger goal and holds everyone accountable for his/her part in succeeding. I've written about this many times before, and it holds true here. Just as my teacher's high expectations for us as a group and as individual musicians drove us to work our hardest to attain that performance, so too do the high expectations of our nonprofit leaders and peers.

Helps individual members understand and produce their best performance. Miss S. didn't just throw us into the deep end of the musical pool and expect us to sink or swim. She gave us the tools and the practice opportunity - and the occasional correction - to reach our best. So, too, should board leaders learn what individual members need to perform their our best and provide appropriate support to help them reach for it.

Helps members create meaningful, inspiring experiences that engage their hearts as well as their minds. We did more than learn the notes. We created meaning in something beautiful that our instructor found and shared with us. We discovered the thrill of working together - one voice among many - to create something powerful that we only could accomplish together, aligning with the vision of something incredible that our guide shared with us. For most of us, that experience was far more than an exercise for a grade. It was a shared experience that opened our hearts, that we still hold dear decades later - even without the libretto in front of us. It was the collective experience of creating something greater than ourselves - and being able to share it with others.

Just as one teacher did every December, nonprofit board leaders have these same opportunities to create experiences that reach and expand individual members' hearts. They have the same opportunities - and expectations - to create and communicate a vision of a beautiful and challenging future toward which everyone moves.

For my classmates and I, that future was a glorious evening performance in an auditorium filled with music lovers. For nonprofit boards, it's a term filled with experiences that connect their hearts as well as their minds to something bigger. It's asking, and expecting them, to carry their part of the music of the mission. Offering opportunities to experience the results, even if those results are smaller steps connected to the mission and members' larger purpose in serving.

How will you, as a board leader, create experiences that engrave on the hearts of members? How will you help members find and create meaning that enriches their service and deepens their commitment to the larger harmonies required for you to fulfill your mission and change your community?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Before I die (or finish my board term): Leaving a personal nonprofit governance legacy

While they prepare for final exams next week, students at my home university are getting a tad philosophical (or maybe expressing anxiety about those finals...).

As I've watched different students make their own public declarations in this space the past few days, I've also been wondering how board members might respond to a variation on the same theme:

Before I die (or, at least, complete my term of service), I want to... 

How would I respond to that same open ended statement? Reflecting back on my own board experiences, I realize that I usually spent more energy up front focused on the task at hand: what I needed to learn, do, be to successfully uphold the commitments I was assuming as a new member. 

Obviously, those are appropriate goals for new members. But what if I - and you - looked just a bit further into the future at the beginning of each new board service term? 

What if we also took a few moments to complete that variation on our students' statement:

Before I complete my term of service, I want to...

Two questions immediately come to mind:

  • What, exactly, would the response(s) be?
  • How might contemplating one's individual legacy from the beginning help to shape that legacy by the time one wraps that up board service?

At the board level comes at least one question:

  • How might open conversations about our collective impact build and expand it as new members arrive and depart?

Specific responses will be uniquely individual, as they should be. But in general, introducing this reflection has the potential to foster the following:

  • Increased awareness that board membership involves more than showing up for meetings prepared. It invites conscious attention to ultimate impact - what we, specifically, can accomplish when we fully commit to all that effective governance requires.
  • More deliberate attention to what we, specifically, can contribute: our life experiences, our passion for the work, our connections that we can make between our networks and our organization, etc.
  • Acknowledgment that we have legitimate need to know that our investments of time, energy and other resources mattered - to us as much as the organization.

I offer this statement to be completed, and this process, as an additional tool for reflection and for more deliberate attention to another factor that facilitates fulfilling and effective governance performances and experiences.

What thoughts come to mind as you think about either your own response to that statement or about institutionalizing a step like this into your board processes?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Reconceptualizing nonprofit board needs: One perspective building from mission

Passion for mission? Not enough?

I must admit that the title of Chris Grundner's TEDxWilmington talk ("Modern nonprofit board governance: Passion is not enough!") caught my eye and drew me in when I first encountered it.

I'm still processing his pyramid of board needs (a take-off on Maslow's Hierarchy) and how it prioritizes those needs. But both Grundner's adaptation and the talk as a whole offer a thought-provoking discussion about what contemporary nonprofit governance really needs to fulfill its leadership priorities and potential. I share it today in the spirit of encouraging conversation and expanded thinking - again - about what it is that boards really require to govern effectively.

Please take a few moments (less than 14 minutes) to watch the talk in its entirety. In the meantime, let me list the four layers in his hierarchy for readers. On order of most foundational (base of the pyramid) to highest level, they are:

Passion for mission - also includes the basics of participation, e.g., showing up for meetings and events, making contributions. This parallels my own recruitment bottom line, commitment to mission. "Passion" for me it a step above commitment - and often comes with experience. But, as Grundner says, attraction to the mission is the starting point for board service.

Standards and best practices - critical to board excellence, effective only if we hold members accountable. He makes points about form following function and rules/processes applying equally to everyone. It should be so common sense that he need not point that out. Alas, in practice, we do sometimes play favorites, stretching policy or looking the other way when certain members fall short or misbehave. The larger point: structures and processes that facilitate board work have a legitimate place in nonprofit governance. The key - which can get lost if we are not attentive and committed to it - is that we must build in, and enact, individual and board-level accountability.

By the way, Board Educator Me appreciated him including "Continuing Learning Process" in the visual at this level. I wish he had expanded on that specific element in the talk itself.

Diversity - including diversity of skill sets and perspectives. There can be many ways to define and accomplish these diversity types. Grundner leaves that piece open but makes a great case for ensuring that we have the right mix of voices in the room that are "not afraid to challenge the status quo." He calls for a "culture of constructive conflict" where "purposeful disruption" is welcomed and used on the way to higher quality decisions.

Transcendent leadership - succession planning that creates a ready pipeline for new board members and avoids lost momentum with leadership turnover. Boards "must provide steady stewardship and bold leadership nor more than ever," Grundner says.

As I said, I'm still processing the structure and contents of the hierarchy itself. But the larger message and goals ring true, and Grundner's talk deserves extended visibility and discussion.

I'm interested in hearing what resonates for you, what causes pause, what inspires. What might this particular resource offer to our always growing understanding of nonprofit governance and the boards that enact it?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The state of our nonprofit boards: A few observations from the field

What exactly is the state of our nonprofit boards? What are the challenges, as seen in my field work and research? Where is my time best spent in the future as a board consultant and educator?

I've been reflecting on that more than usual lately, as I continue to work on a book, explore other board development-focused projects, and consider future directions for this blog.  As I do that, and as I also continue to reflect on my many interactions with boards, I keep coming back to a few common themes that drive (and occasionally trouble) me. Acknowledging that my experiences - and those of the boards with whom I've interacted - ultimately represent only a small snapshot of what occurs in the larger nonprofit community, I offer up a few of those themes in the spirit of knowing that they will ring familiar with many here.

Theme 1: Boards don't have a clue what they've really signed on to do.

For that, I blame the sector as a whole. We've done a terrible job of jointly creating and advancing a holistic understanding of nonprofit governance. As a result, boards really don't have a firm grasp of what they take on when they say yes to a term. Some sources have made reasonable attempts to create a bottom line, though we've completely failed to share even that work broadly. (I used to watch the color drain from board members' faces when I introduced the BoardSource 10 basic responsibilities as a starting point.) We treat the most basic attempts to shed some light on what it means to be a board member as trade secrets to be hidden at all costs.  Then we gripe when they fall short of those unstated expectations. That is unfair and unrealistic.

We've completely and utterly failed to communicate the bigger picture, the one that truly immerses boards in work that connects them and commits them to advancing the world-changing missions and visions that they are called to define and protect. One potential "bigger picture" already exists in Chait, Ryan and Taylor's revolutionary Governance as Leadership framework. But the lack of discussion, or even access to information about that model, is distressing. Frankly, I can't even keep a reliable set of bookmarked resources alive to share so we can have a discussion.  (Go ahead. Click on a few of those links. I'm betting some already have vanished, even though I review them regularly.) Sure, they can buy the book. But few board members and leaders know it exists. Even fewer have the time and money to purchase and read it. The point is, we need to do a better job of making information and ideas like this broadly accessible to those who need and want it.

Practically speaking, I'm seeing the need for a sector-level commitment to board performance support, more than training. That is the direction my own work will be taking.

Theme 2: What they know over-emphasizes the fiduciary/oversight role.

No, I'm not discounting those important responsibilities. Yes, oversight is an important board function. But it's not the only function of nonprofit governance and it's the one that is most likely to cause members to mentally check out or run for their lives when things get tough. Even when that's all boards focus on, many do a terrible job of it because they're not appropriately educated/prepared and they don't ask the types of inquiry questions that help them uncover the larger issues and opportunities. They just stare at financial statements that may tell only a portion of the true fiduciary story.

Theme 3: They want to be stretched, but the prospect scares them.

I regularly have conversations with boards about what governance really should be like, about the questions they should be asking, about the new ways of structuring their work to accommodate this change/expanded role. Most react positively, even enthusiastically, but they frequently balk. They want to say "YES!" But they stop short of doing so.

Many fear giving up the familiar, or at least traditional ways of dealing with the familiar. It may be work they hate, but they at least know what is expected. This is uncharted territory for many board members. They want clear, specific, definable steps for how to do what I am asking. When I can't always give exactly that, or when what I suggest sounds challenging or new (translation: potential to fail), the response too often is, "Well, then..." And they go no further.

My first reaction to this is to recognize my own responsibility to continue to develop ways to make the work of governance actionable. All of the work, especially the expansive inquiry, creativity and assessment capacities required of generative and strategic governance. As an adult educator, I know that that's a legitimate and very real need of board members. It is my job as a board consultant and coach.

However, I also recognize the need to keep pushing them to try something - anything - that initiates the process of transforming the way they work and govern. One of our biggest mistakes, in my mind, has been trying to reduce nonprofit governance to a series of easy steps that won't scare away prospective members. The important work that we ask them to do seldom is easy, and it's almost never reduced to a few quick steps that they can wrap up in one two-hour meeting. Yet we continue to conceptualize and structure the work as if that were the case.

We need to stretch them, support them in that stretch, and display confidence in their capacity to succeed when they do. They are smart people, after all. They are community leaders, chosen for all that that leadership entails. We need to finally act as if that were the case. Because it is.

Theme 4: The board and ED co-lead with complementary but not identical interests.

Nonprofit governance carries enormous leadership responsibility and potential for impact, but too many boards act as if that were news to them. Instead, many passively accept work tasks that, if not directly defined by the CEO, are heavily influenced by that person's agenda. Too many boards either don't understand, or don't choose to accept, the fact that both parties have legitimate, complementary responsibilities that together provide the leadership needed for the organization to move beyond mere survival.

See Theme 1 for a big part of the context for this one. Boards - and often CEOs - generally don't know better.  Sometimes, sadly, it's also often by design. I've worked with many EDs whose sole purpose in calling me in seems to be to act as the big meanie who'll straighten out their boards as if they were naughty children. That pretty much never works, mostly because that's not the real problem behind their boards' performance breakdowns.

We need to do a better job of not only creating and reinforcing bottom-line expectations but creating and supporting board self-empowerment. That starts with empowered and supported board leadership. It continues with empowered boards who work with their executives but who accept their own set of responsibilities that work in tandem with that person.

Theme 5: When boards are bored, fatigue hits more quickly and performance suffers.

Let me be frank. I see many willing hearts, hands and souls in the field. But mostly, I see a lot of bored board members who feel helpless to change their situation. That is not a place of empowered leadership. It's not reality. But it is their reality unless we do something to change that. Maintaining "the way we've always done it" will not do that. Treating generative discussions and fun breaks from the routine as something we do once a year, at the annual retreat (where they give up a precious Saturday to participate), will not do that. We need to commit to finding new ways to engage, educate, and stimulate our board members. We do not do that by adding on to an already long evening meeting. We need to commit to tossing out the dysfunctional practices and embedding those ways into the work that our boards do - acknowledging along with them that it may feel uncomfortable at first, but affirming that doing so will not only make them more productive but more personally fulfilled.

Inspired board members, who regularly do work that sparks their imaginations and draws on their greatest personal potential, are board members who will succeed collectively. The winners will be our organizations and our communities. Why in the world do we not act as if we don't know or want that?

Writing this particular post has been more of a "thinking aloud" experience for me as a reflective practitioner than an informative piece for readers. I chose the graphic to accompany this post as a personal reminder that I need to continue to translate this knowledge into actions and products that support the transformative work I'm addressing here and elsewhere.

It also is renewing my personal commitment to continue to build my voice, not only as an educator of boards but an advocate of boards. The more I continue along this journey, the more convinced I am that the latter may end up being my most important professional role.

What I hope it will offer readers is a chance to confirm or contrast your experiences with what I'm sharing here. More important, I hope it will inspire you to engage in a conversation about the similarities and differences - and that we might think together about what we can do to strengthen and support our nonprofit boards.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Dealing with nonprofit board dysfunction

How do we help our boards avoid the dysfunction that too often comes between them and the work that they gather to do? How do we handle that dysfunction as effectively - and quickly - as possible when it does enter the boardroom space?

This week, I share another video, produced by the Stanford Graduate Graduate School of Business, that addresses that topic in a succinct and helpful way.  I also offer a few reactions to what they provide here.

The first, and most important, point that they make comes at the opening: addressing boardroom issues is a peer-driven event. Ultimately, it belongs to the board members themselves to create - and reinforce - a healthy culture. That includes tackling problematic interactions, attitudes and performances themselves.  It's not fun. But it's critical to overall board performance.

The recommendation to document the dysfunctional behavior is important to making a credible case for change. That not only provides evidence to which the individual and group can respond (also note the call to consider group-level intervention), it also reduces the risk of it being perceived as a personal attack. It also offers a foundation for coming up with healthy and appropriate strategies to deal with the problem.

The caution to avoid unnecessary burning of bridges is an important one. First, as noted here, it's unlikely that whatever problem lies solely within one individual's actions. There may be one or more organizational/group factors that also contributed to the breakdown - including whether/how the board chairperson handled any challenge before the situation reached a point of no return.

Second, whether or not continuing on the board is a good option for the individual member or the group, that person undoubtedly still carries a commitment to the mission and the potential to continue to serve as a viable and valued ambassador for your mission. How you handle the problematic situation, and potential separation of service, can mean the difference between a continued loyal ally and an indifferent former member (or worse, an enemy).

I'm spotlighting this video as an encouragement to use it as a discussion starter for your board. What are your challenges to a functional and healthy boardroom culture? How do you handle them as a group? Do you accept collective accountability for tending to group health, or do you ignore it (or almost as bad, expect the CEO to handle the messy stuff for you?). What can you do to increase a collective sense of commitment to not only governance outcomes but to the environment in which those outcomes are created?

What can you do - as a group - to commit to making your board work not only more productive but more fun and fulfilling for members in the midst of it?

Friday, October 31, 2014

Overhead or impact: What do we want our nonprofit governance legacy to be?

I don't have much to say about this tweet that it doesn't say for itself. I'm sharing because it captures the theme of pretty much everything I write here: we do this important volunteer leadership work for the chance to make an impact. We want and deserve the opportunity to do so.

Not only is ensuring and increasing impact an essential responsibility of nonprofit governance, it's also a core motivator for most of us as community servants. That's the ultimate point of this quote (original source Dan Pallotta?).

As I've stated many, many times before here, we can't ignore the oversight responsibilities that come with governance. Obviously. But they shouldn't be our sole focus - and too many board meeting agendas are structured as if that were the case.

I'll leave this quote with you to ponder and to share with your own boards. What does it bring up for you? What changes might it prompt you to consider? How can you connect your board and individual members more closely to evidence that their contributions matter?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The power of intention in nonprofit governance: Building reflective leadership

"Get the big ideas right."

"Seek to strengthen organizational culture."

"Engage in dialogue (like never before)."

Transforming nonprofit governance is that simple. And that hard.

Daniel Forrester offered those three points during his BoardSource Leadership Forum keynote, "Boards, Leadership and the Power of Intention," earlier this month. In this talk, Forrester calls on boards to make reflection a highest leadership priority and practice. But in a distracted larger culture that places a premium on "busy-ness" - and a sector that demands "action" from its volunteer leaders, whether or not that "action" accomplishes anything resembling leadership - making the case for reflection and intentional practice can be a surprisingly tough sell.

I encourage you to watch, learn from, and reflect upon Daniel's entire keynote. In the meantime, I'll share my reaction to the three points above (beginning around 15:43 in the video) that Forrester call "a boardroom imperative."

"Get the big ideas right."

Governance is about big ideas: ideas about defining the future, ideas about meeting community needs in strategically smart ways,  ideas about stakeholder accountability and stewardship. It requires expansive, open conversations. It requires time to think, to incubate, to let the best possible "big ideas" emerge.

"When you're in the state of reflection," Forrester says in his keynote, "that's the moment when the real juice starts."

That's the moment where board members, individually and collectively, exercise their ultimate leadership potential. But how often do they spend their time exploring big ideas? If you asked them to articulate their big ideas for your organization, could they articulate any? Would there be any consensus in their attempts?

Do your meetings and other venues for board work even allow spaces for little ideas? Or are they crammed with "action items" that allow little interaction, let alone reflection? Do they create environments where your boards - and board members - become diminished with participation?

"The state of thinking is under attack," Forrester says. "Thinking and getting to decisive thought is what we are called to do. Boards and individuals can't become greater than the sum of their parts unless we reset the contract with ourselves."

"Getting the big ideas right" requires a radically different way of meeting and interacting. It requires deep, extended conversations in which organizational leaders communicate mission and vision and actually create opportunities for synergistic thinking.

"Seek to strengthen organizational culture."

We can't afford to ignore organizational culture, Forrester says. We also cannot separate strategy and culture and expect to succeed. Without a high-performing team ready to receive and act, we will fail in our efforts to change the world. You know. Our reason for being as nonprofits.

Daniel hones in on organizational values in unpacking this point. We must do more than plunk out a list of values, he says. We must enact them. We need to define them collectively and identify collectively the behaviors that represent those values in action. People inside and outside of the organization need to be able to see and experience our values in action.

"Culture matters deeply," Forester says, adding that ultimately it comes down to local leadership, starting with the board.

"Engage in dialogue (like never before)."

He had me at this quote: "Great dialogue...requires moments of pause."

Periods of collective reflection, time to take a breath and consider before leaping into decisions. "People need time to think," he says. "They need time to process." Do we build the pauses into our board routines and agendas? Experience tells me that most of us do not. 

Responsibility for creating that space lies in the hands of board leaders, he says. I agree. There is nothing sacred about common notions of board meeting agendas, even though we often act as if that were the case.

Board leaders have the power to structure governance work in very different ways.They have the power to clear the junk from meeting agendas. They have the power to focus board attention on big ideas and open, expansive dialogue. They have the power to engage member brains and imaginations in ways that lead to "1+1=3." They have the power to create moments of reflection that foster meaning-making and more nuanced, thoughtful decisions.

As Forrester says, they have the power to "change the entire trajectory" of their organizations and the boards that govern them. But will they? What do we need to do to spark that transformation?

The other lessons within this brief talk are myriad. I invite you to watch. Then watch again. Then share and discuss with your boards the steps you could take today to govern more intentionally and reflectively.