Friday, May 28, 2010

Board culture for leadership

Who says there's no value in recycling? While sorting through never-quite-filed papers yesterday, intending to send most of them to the recycling bin, I ran across a 2008 article from the Journal for Nonprofit Management on a topic that I'm immersed in at the moment: creating a culture for board leadership.

Culture is an elusive thing, not necessarily easy to see - or see fully. But Barbara Miller and Jeanne Bergman's article, Developing Leadership on Boards of Directors, does a good job of introducing the topic and offering boards a few markers for sparking discussion and action.

My bias should obvious to any regular reader of this blog: we don't get to effective, powerful, vision- and mission-driven governance via "10 basic responsibilities" alone. Governance is a commitment of vision, accountability, engagement and action. Understanding and fostering a culture rich in expectation, focus and possibility propels us toward those ends.

I'd encourage you to download and read the entire article (and pass it on to your board), but I'd also like to point out one section that is resonating for me this morning.

How boards create a culture that promotes leadership (found on p. 6)
  • "Recruit people to the board who have a passion for your mission.
  • "Connect trustees with the organization's work through direct experience, conversations with program staff and compelling stories that illustrate the importance of the organization's work.
  • "State expectations of board members up front during the recruitment process.
  • "Make time to talk together as a board about the culture that you want to create or perpetuate on the board, and how you can work together most productively.
  • "Let potential board members know about the culture of the board up front.
  • "Create rituals to celebrate achievements, recognize people who have made a contribution, and mark new moments in an organization's history.
  • "Compare how the board operates with the organization's values, and determine if the structure and the values need to be more closely aligned.
  • "Acknowledge the contributions of those who have made the organization what it is today, and then focus on how to maintain the founding principles in a changing environment."
I originally intended to share only one or two of the highlights of that list, until I realized they feel equally important. However, if I were to select one to bring to my board for focus, I'd start with the fourth: making time to talk about the culture we want to create. Why? Because I can pretty much guarantee that most boards do not have those conversations. They probably aren't aware that their board has a culture or that it is something they are empowered to change.

Simply introducing the topic, and providing the open space for reflecting as a group on the environment in which members govern, can be incredibly powerful. It is also far too rare. Imagine the impact of a board regularly setting aside time to focus on building its capacity to serve and appreciating the impacts their leadership has on fulfilling the vision and mission.

Now, anyone who truly understands "culture" will tell us this list barely scratches the surface of what really is involved. But even a simplistic starting point to thinking about governance beyond a list of tasks to check off, of building meaning in work that should be inherently meaningful, is a healthy investment for our boards.


Gayle & Kelly said...

Debra: The link to this blog post was included in my google news search and was the first thing to show up in my inbox this morning. What a great message with which to start the week!
I agree with you, boards rarely create the time to ponder culture. As I look back on my own board experience (about 10 boards in all), I can only recall 1 orientation conversation with the whole board present, and it was clear that they felt it was mandatory.
As a consultant, I work hard to ensure that board members see their time spent creating culture as an investment in their own future success. I can't point to a single board who has squirmed during the work, and I account for that in knowing that the attitude I bring as a consultant - one of respect, empathy and support for their work - sets the tone.
Thanks for sharing this article. I'll happily devour it and share it with my clients.
Gayle Valeriote
Volunteer Centre of Guelph & Wellington

Debra said...

You are a true role model in all things governance, Gayle. I learn something new and important in every interaction. This feels like one of those opportunities.

I know the risk of oversimpification is vast, asking this in this venue. But may I pick your brain for just a moment? If I 'forced' you offer one caveat to your fellow consultants (and maybe a board member reading this post) about setting that tone, what would it be?

Anne W. Ackerson said...

Love it and thanks so much for sharing it. I'm going to put it to work right away!

Debra said...

Thanks, Anne! I'm glad I 're-discovered' that article. It fits where I'm focusing as both a consultant and a writer: exploring the importance of meaning-making in governance.

Gayle Valeriote said...

Debra: Here are my thoughts around setting the tone when I'm working with boards.
First: I normalize how hard it can be to have "company in the house". No board wants to air their dirty laundry to a stranger. If nothing else, it clarifies that they are in control of what they share with me. Interestingly, the big stuff usually airs in the last 10 minutes...

Second: I share my own experience of having to sit in their chair, suffering through dreadful facilitation, and encourage them to have high expectations of me as a facilitator. More recently, I look for opportunities to co-facilitate pieces (some or all) with a board member.

Third: I try to listen more than I speak (not always easy)and ask questions in such a way as to "hold up a mirror" so they can hear themselves reflected. I try (not always easy) to let them interpret what they need to, about what's going on. Gets me out of the expert role, and lets them drive their own process. In that way, I check with them frequently, "is this what I'm hearing?" "is this what you heard?", etc.

Final: I look for strengths and opportunities. They don't always see as much as I see, and it's often a boost for them to know they're not hopelessly lost. :-)

No wizardry there - just a bit of practice. Sometimes done well, sometimes done dreadfully. :-)


Debra said...

I so appreciate your willingness to share your wisdom, Gayle. I learn from you yet again!