Sunday, October 19, 2014

Effective nonprofit board meetings: Questions, engagement, energized exits


I said that a lot while watching this brief video from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. The themes of what is shared will ring familiar to regular readers of this blog. But the chance to share these expert voices advocating for the kinds of meaningful member engagement - and discussion-focused agendas - in board meetings feels like a great idea this week.

A few of the highlights to point out as you watch:

  • Bruce Lesley's call for "thoughtful" agendas and treatment of board meetings as events - where  there is clarity about what is to be accomplished, where the board chair acts as facilitator and draws out participation by every member. Oh, and most noteworthy (because of its clear departure from where our usual attention is focused): awareness of "how you want people to feel during and after the meeting." I love that he's raising member experience as a concern to which we should be tending. Fulfilled, stimulate members are productive leaders.
  • Ben Klasky's description of  how his board uses consent agendas to free up time for substantive discussions, often conducted in small groups to encourage full participation. Doing so, he says, allows focus on asking for and receiving board advice on pressing questions and concerns - a far better use of members' time and expertise than asking them to listening to endless "talking heads" reports. (Note his lack of anxiety, as a CEO, over not having his time to share an oral version of his report to his board. EDs, the world won't end if we receive your updates in writing.)
  • Ruth Jones' observation about how flipping her board's agenda ensures that prime thinking time is spent on forward-thinking discussions on topics that matter, moving fiduciary/oversight functions until the end.
  • Jones talking about how attention to building relationships and trust is time well spent for her board. And absolutely priceless to me as a board member: her description of how they use that investment in relationships to create meeting experiences where "people leave the meeting feeling...more stimulate and energized than when they arrived." As she so wisely observes: "A board meeting where people leave feeling drained and tired is a board meeting that has failed in its purpose."
A. Men.

If you were to pick one piece of advice from what is shared in this video to implement in your board, what would it be and why?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Messing around in the nonprofit boardroom: How we REALLY learn how to act, work

Purchased from Bigstock Photo

How do nonprofit board members mess around, and how does that impact what happens when they gather to govern?

I couldn't help asking myself that question last week, while reading a new book on a totally unrelated topic. (Regular readers know how I love creative and occasionally insane stretches.) The author, Reynol Junco, was making a slightly smaller stretch of his own, drawing from research on "messing around" as a developmental process in which young people learn how to interact and work with their peers.

How do they (how did we) "communicate with their peer group, discuss difficult issues, share successes without seeming to brag," etc.? It's a process that happens over time, largely by "messing around." (p. 133)

Junco's stretch is to apply that process to young people's technology use: using social tools to learn how to become part of a larger community, often via trial and error. That leads to insights about "what is culturally appropriate and acceptable and what isn't, within the context of their peer group." They "test the waters" via their interaction.

I read and reflected on both notions within the intended context, wearing my "connected educator" hat. But thoughts about the potential application to what happens in our boardroom interactions and, specifically, how members learn "how things work here" planted themselves in my brain.

How do things work? We may have our policies and our values about boardroom roles and structures. But as they do in any room of two or more people, board members largely learn how things really work by observing and participating.  They learn via trial and error. They learn by stepping on toes and pointing out the uncomfortably obvious.

They learn by messing around.

The question I'm asking myself - and you - today is this: What does "messing around" look and sound like in our boardrooms? What are the types of actions, reactions and markers that members experience and absorb, whether or not they fit the official rules and espoused norms of the group?

The answers to these questions could be endless. But here are some of the examples that come to mind for me today.

Do members show up on time, and does it matter? Are there consequences for not arriving on time, prepared to work, or is it allowed to continue to happen? Something as simple as this not only sets expectations for timely arrival, but a tone that reinforces respect, or lack thereof, for the work undertaken when they arrive.

What do board conversations look like? Are they open and respectful, even when members disagree? Is there a lot of talk overlap, and does the overlap hurt or encourage creative discussions?

Are people allowed to sit quietly in meetings? That one may surprise, since I'm always pushing for full member engagement in discussions. But as one of those quieter members, I'm sensitive to how people like me are drawn to participate. Is their quiet treated as a functional way of respecting their thought processes? Or is it used as an excuse to avoid a contribution that may be contradictory or creating challenges to consensus?

How do we deal with disruption? What happens when that disruption is ultimately a different way of seeing and thinking? What happens when it is interpersonal in nature and interrupts the work we are doing? Is there a difference in how we treat the two scenarios? Do we deal with them at all?

What are the real consequences of not following through on commitments? How do we hold each other accountable for what living up to expectations set and promises made?

How are new members brought into board work? Are they drawn in immediately, in respectful and inviting ways? What happens when they do - for the new members themselves? For the rest of the board?

What happens when someone makes an "inappropriate" statement or asks an "inappropriate" question? What effect does it have on the discussion and tone? What defines "inappropriate" for our board? How do we know? Does the answer differ for different members?

What kinds of activities and actions help us feel like we're in this together? Are they all "business" and on task, or do they allow for informal connections?

What types of markers do we recognize to demonstrate - to us - that we're making a difference? How do we define and articulate that to each other? Do we stop long enough to acknowledge that all of the work we're doing matters? Can we see how it matters, even when it's not easy to see?

How do we have fun as a group? How is that fun treated? As a distraction? As something to save for the next retreat? As a normal mode of working and an integral part of effective leadership team culture?

This list is hardly definitive of how boards "mess around." A few may be off the mark, even with the stretch I'm making and asking you to make. But I hope it sparks some awareness of the kinds of actions and interactions that foster, challenge, or inhibit completely the kinds of group dynamics that shape what really happens when we gather to govern.

For more insights into health board dynamics and the challenges to effective board interactions, visit the "Board Dynamics" resources shared on this site.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Board Leadership Forum: Favorite insights, highlights from day two

Day one of the BoardSource Board Leadership Forum offered so many insights that I couldn't help following the backchannel for day two yesterday.

No surprise: there were as many noteworthy ideas and takeaways shared as there were on Thursday. I'd like to share a few of the tweeted highlights from Friday morning, along with the reactions they sparked for me.

It's about the purpose. Really.


This one thrilled for two reasons. One: it quotes Richard Chait, co-author of the book that changed everything for me (and the model that promises to transform nonprofit boards, Governance as Leadership). Two, it states so starkly and so beautifully the bottom line for boards. That's single-minded focus on defining and advancing purpose - advancing the mission of the organization and the vision of a better future for all that it feeds.

"As the head turns, so the body turns." Wow. So beautiful. Max's summary statement leading up to it frames it perfectly. Boards aren't helpless minions of executive directors. They are leaders responsible for setting their tone and creating their climate for doing the important work of governance. The essence of that work is dialogue. The content of that work is the larger purpose that draws them together and the responsibility for moving it forward in substantive and meaningful ways.

I was simultaneously glad and discouraged that "dialogue" was a focus: glad because we should be exploring ways to make that process as wide-open, rich, and productive as possible; discouraged because the tone of what was being shared was more a case for dialogue. I've said it too many times to count, here and elsewhere, but the situation begs for one more:

Big discussions about big questions aren't "frills." They aren't "topics to save for our next retreat." The are governance.

BoardSource and its partners launched Stand for Your Mission this week. I encourage you to visit the initiative's site and download the discussion guide (and expect a follow up here in the near future). What I see there is so exciting, so empowering for boards. For the moment, let Tim Delaney's quote here sink in. Think about what it represents for the leadership potential of your board. Imagine what is possible when that full potential is enacted.

It's the process. Really.

Gail! Though I've never met her, Gail Perry is both a kindred spirit and a wise guide who is forever expanding my thinking about how we engage our boards. She is the queen of her specific expertise area: nonprofit fundraising. But she also has deep understanding of the larger motivation needs of board members. Boring meetings=bored boards. Amen, my friend. Amen. Now what are we going to do about that?

Speaking of fundraising... Does anyone see a problem with this? Nothing bothers me as a board member more than having the "fundraising failure" specter held over my head when nothing is done to ensure that I won't fulfill that negative prophecy. I've served on local, state and national boards for 31 years. As I re-read this tweet, I'm hard pressed to think of a single board that offered my peers and me meaningful training or support to rise to the expectations held for us. Is it any wonder that we "fail?"

The very first recommendation I have to change that is to turn to my friend, Gail. Her blog and her fantastic book, Fired-Up Fundraising, address far more than the mechanics of raising dollars. They offer frank and encouraging discussions about what board members need to feel confident, prepared, and motivated to make connections far beyond asking for money. 

Flip the agenda! Yes, flip the agenda! If board members balk at making the changes our agendas really require, flipping the agenda - placing the substantial topics and conversations at the beginning of the meeting and saving the reports until the end - is the best possible alternative. 

The fiduciary mode of governance (one of three Governance as Leadership modes) is far more multi-layered than many boards practice it. The oversight element is most familiar: do the numbers match up? Is our income enough to cover needs? What can we cut when it doesn't? Those kinds of questions matter. But so do the inquiry questions, which ask about priorities: does our spending match our mission? Are we devoting resources - financial and otherwise - to our priorities? Are we good stewards of those resources? Are we making a difference in deploying them?

We humans are meaning-making beings. We board members offer greater value when we create meaning as we work. Boards need to ask "why"in addition to "what" and "how." That needs to be an integral part of every conversation we have.

One more from Gail, because the topic is so close to my heart (and my professional reason for being). Learning doesn't end with orientation. Learning keeps us growing. Learning builds our effectiveness. Learning expands our impact. Learning keeps us motivated. Boards are learning, whether or not we recognize it. (See the "Board Learning" page here for some specifics shared so far. Stay tuned for my evolving Board Learning Environment model.)

I'll end this on a happy note: happy because (a) it's a nod to Governance as Leadership (fiduciary, strategic and generative modes) and (b) it calls on our nominating processes to think more broadly - and more specifically for a GAL boardroom - to the capacities that contribute to the diverse range of perspectives, talents and mindsets needed to govern.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Stalking the Board Leadership Forum backchannel: Favorite session tweets on culture, reflection, learning, leadership

Monitoring the BoardSource Board Leadership Forum backchannel is hardly the same as being there this week; but the good folks tweeting from the event offered a nonstop flow of insights and intrigue today.

My own retweets were plentiful (what they were posting was that good), but I captured some of my very favorites for sharing with you here. Following are the highlights, with a note or two of reaction.

Culture matters. Really.

I was most heartbroken about missing Daniel Forrester's opening keynote address. (I'm a big fan of his book, Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking in Your Organization.) These three tweets illustrate why.  Action orientation in nonprofit governance is important, but it's ill-informed - and risky - when not supported by a culture of thoughtful deliberation, critical thinking, reflection and continuous learning. 

I was thrilled to see Daniel on the agenda, because I knew that reflection would be center stage at this forum. Creating a culture where reflective practice is a priority can only lead to great things for boards, their organizations and their communities. That often requires a radically different mindset - and agenda - than many boards currently experience.

The work matters. Really.

Yes, in the end, boards do.  They do it better - and most effectively - when it is intentional. That takes time and commitment to invest in whatever is required to govern and lead.

Take a breath. Set aside the day behind you. Bring your focus and full attention into the room. So simple. So powerful. So needs to be a standard part of board practice - a trigger for reflective practice, actually.

Boards obviously have a legitimate oversight role. There is a time and a place for asking tough questions and narrowing choices. But boards ultimately hold responsibility for the future: defining a vision worthy of their communities and a mission that moves everyone closer to it. That requires the capacity think and work expansively. It requires the ability to engage in "Yes, and..." thinking.

Sensemaking is one of the most important contributions of thoughtful board processes. It's how we connect the dots, understanding how they fit and what's possible when the sum is greater than the parts. It's how we make sense of our experiences, a process that blossoms when regular time is built in to think and reflect. Not a special event process. A routine, core component of governance.

It's all about the questions. But then, you know that. Questions invite engagement. Questions invite collaboration. Questions spark generative thinking and feed reflection.  Questions immerse board members in visioning work. Questions drive critical thinking that lead to smarter, more effective decisions. The capacity to ask great questions really is more important. They also lead to great answers.

My friend, Emily, packed a lot into two sentences; and they're a great fit. Boards need to understand organizational culture to be effective, which takes - you guessed it - time, dialogue and commitment.


This one brings three complementary responses for me. One, hurray! Empowering the board chair/president to take on that role in directing board discussions (and everything else that unfolds at the meeting) shouldn't be in question. It should be an expectation of the responsibilities assumed in taking the job. Two, there is a management function involved in that process to ensure that the board's time is spent on high-impact areas and activities (and that unproductive tangents are avoided). Three, I also see a leadership function in creating high expectations for one's peers and the board as a whole, and to facilitating the kinds of creative stretches that become something great.

I so wanted to be in this session after reading Max's update. Board members want to be involved in exactly this kind of work. They/we want to be engaged in consequential thinking and planning and connecting. We want to have an impact. These are the kinds of questions that lead to work that matters. This is what boards should be doing.

Whoa. Pointed and on point. Which best describes how our boards spend their time? Where should they be spending their time? 

People matter, too. Really.


Anything that moves us away from relying solely on checklists of demographics and job titles in recruiting the right people to the boardroom table is a good thing. This list from the YMCA led to a small fist-pump when it appeared in my feed. Imagine the potential of a room full of board members who bring these capacities (and more) with them.

I had a hard time narrowing down what I would share. Many important topics made their way into the backchannel, from sessions that undoubtedly expanded participants' thinking and understanding. In the end, I chose to focus on a smaller subset of themes that spoke to me. I leave those that made the cut with you to ponder and spark your own reflection on what they might mean to you and your board.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Healthy vs. smart: Key differences and their impacts on nonprofit governance success

Did I mention you'd be seeing more from Patrick Lencioni's work on organizational health?

This brief video points out what should be obvious to boards (but may not be, because we don't talk about these topics): boards need to be both smart and healthy. Those of us who pay attention to board development - boards and consultants - tend to have the "smart" component down. We focus on the elements that typically signify board effectiveness. Look at his list under that category - technology, strategy, finance, marketing - for hints.

We may struggle a bit with execution in the boardroom, but we're reasonably aware that those are the kinds of capacity and focus muscles that boards are expected to build. Lencioni says they typically receive 95 percent of the attention in team development. In my experience working and talking with boards, that feels about right.

But what about the "healthy" half of the equation? His bottom line involves the following: minimal politics, minimal confusion, high levels of morale and productivity,  and low turnover among good people.

This description (related to high morale and productivity) particularly caught my ear:

"People are psyched to come to work and they get a lot done when they're there." 

Can our boards, and our individual members, say that on a routine basis?

Note that Lencioni doesn't say "ignore the smart." But he does call on us to attend to both sides. He also cautions us to avoid the trap of falling back on the "smart" half because it's where we're comfortable. He further points out that that isn't where the greatest potential lies.  

Let that sink in for a moment. We can't ignore the "smart" elements, but they aren't where our ultimate opportunities for differentiation and impact exist. As he says, most organizations today are smart enough to succeed.

Then Lencioni asks a question that I challenge every board leader to pose and make a priority:

Are we healthy enough to tap into the intelligence that we have?

To the extent that we routinely fail to make full use of the gifts that our individual board members bring to the table, I believe the answer for most of us is no.  Not at all. The reason: we aren't attending to the health of our board as a team and the morale needs of our individual members. That is as much the fault of the sector and many who focus on board development as it is individual board leaders.

I'm working to rectify that on my end. What can your board to do take a step toward nurturing your team health?

Monday, September 29, 2014

Name that bias: three common tendencies that challenge nonprofit board effectiveness

 Bigstock Photo

I'm not biased. Am I? You're not biased. Right? Certainly, we harbor nothing that can play out in troublesome ways when we enter our board meetings? Correct?

The truth is, we all have our notions of how groups are supposed to work and how things are supposed to unfold. Some of them, frequently unconscious, impact what happens when we gather to govern.

I've been thinking about some of those common notions while revisiting Patrick Lencioni's excellent book,  The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business. One of the bigger board-related takeaways is his list of three types of common biases that hinder a group's overall health. Naturally, as I reflect on that list today, impacts on the ways in which boards work come to mind.

The following examples may be familiar to anyone who has served on a nonprofit board. One or two may stretch the author's original intent, but that's okay. I offer them to spark some thinking and conversation  and, hopefully, opportunities to change our practice once we know about them.

Sophistication Bias -- It's so simple and available to anyone who wants to work on it that it can't provide any meaningful challenge.

There may be specific tasks of board work that fall into this category. But as I reflect on this one, I'm drawn to a couple of areas that are even more basic: meetings and board dynamics.

In the field, I encounter some pretty strong notions of what board meetings are supposed to look like: how they're structured, topics considered appropriate, ways in which we are to address those subjects, how long they should be, etc.  I've also encountered equally strong push-back when I suggest that, guess what, none of those traditions are sacred. We don't have to save the meaty topics until the end. We don't have to fill agendas with reports that bore. We actually can have big, open conversations about subjects that usually wait until the annual retreat in board meetings themselves.

I believe that one of the bigger challenges to changing the board meeting status quo is connected to sophistication bias: "the way boards meet" is such a gimme that no one stops to question it. We just do - even when that doing is ineffective.

I also see elements of sophistication bias when it comes to boardroom dynamics. How people interact with each other feels so basic that we don't stop to question or confront. We assume smart people know how to interact with other adults. "Common sense" tells us that participants won't overstep their bounds, interrupt, shut someone else down, ask embarrassing questions. These group rules of the road are so "basic" that we simply expect them to play out when we're in a room with others. We may grumble when someone crosses a line, but we don't necessarily stop and address a breakdown - in part - because we all "know better."

Adrenaline Bias -- It requires time and a long-term commitment and, as a result, does not feed our need for adrenaline and action. We can't or won't slow down long enough to attend to it.

We're community leaders. We're action oriented. We're here to make a difference. We want to decide, darn it. The adrenaline bias creates an undercurrent of impatience and dissatisfaction. It also feeds the temptation to push for board goals, meeting agendas, and committee charges that have clear but superficial benchmarks.

Quantification Bias --  It's difficult (maybe even seemingly impossible) to measure, which reduces its perceived value. Results are largely intangible.

This challenge is as old as nonprofits themselves. The truth is, most of our missions have elements that are intangible (usually, the good stuff). Some aspects of our work either literally are impossible to measure or so challenging that they feel that way. But we have funders, regulators and others who want evidence that we are making an impact. They deserve that evidence and, more important, those we serve deserve it.

But what results is a tendency to focus on measurable results and activities - especially those that area easy to measure. They are important, but they do not tell the whole story. We need to push ourselves, and our staffs, to not lose sight of the deeper impacts while we're quantifying the things that can be counted.

I suspect this is a factor - perhaps unconscious - in our obsession with dashboards, financials, and other things that involve numbers. They have a legitimate place in governance, obviously. But the quantification bias invites the risk that we hone in on them at the expense of the higher-impact work. We can see and respond to them. We can do something about them and see forward motion (or something to fix), even if what we do isn't the stuff of true mission advancement.

Certainly, we need balance. We need intermediate steps toward the massive mission challenges we are charged with resolving. Some decisions really are simple But we can't let our need to mark something - anything - off an agenda keep us from grappling with the deeper issues that are our responsibility as community leaders.

Lencioni's work on organizational health offers much to inform our thinking about what it takes to create healthy, high-functioning boards. (Read his book!) I can almost guarantee another post - or more - as I continue to reflect on his work.

In the meantime, I encourage you to consider how these biases may be shaping how your board interacts and works. I invite you to share this post with your board and facilitate a discussion about what those impacts might be and how you can collectively be more conscious and more deliberate in choosing healthier ways to work together.

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?