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.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Welcoming boards, Twitter style

Apparently, there is a strong need for great ideas for populating a board handbook and orienting new members.

No, this isn't a new revelation. But if the popularity of this post, by Don Griesmann, yesterday is any indication, he both hit a nerve and offered a useful and sorely needed resource. I shared a link that was re-tweeted (shared) by several people throughout the day. It undoubtedly resonated with folks in their respective follower lists as well, and some of them likely passed it on to their contacts.

This little incident reminds me of two things:
  • The importance of sharing the highly practical with leaders in the field. It is essential, even/especially when sharing research-based information, to be able to speak to the real needs of boards.
  • The incredible power of social media in sharing and generating a lot of that practical knowledge.
It saddens and frustrates me when I run into folks in the sector who pooh-pooh "technology" as a big, old, fluffy waste of time that leads to nothing of value in the "real world." Guess what: "real world" is exactly the realm of social media. Real people - working in the field, around the globe - share resources, cases, and other information via social media. We learn from and with each other. Don and his Board Welcome Kit exemplify that perfectly. I never would have discovered that resource without my RSS feed of his blog. Twitter extended its visibility, and its value as a resource to real boards and the leaders who serve them.

I've found very few navel-gazers amongst the nonprofit/NGO folks I interact with via social media. Everyone I encounter "out there" leads the sector in vital and creative ways while serving their respective communities. The horizon expanding and knowledge sharing that takes place in those settings is global and highly practical. Lives and communities are changed along the way. Leaders are born and nurtured. And we all come away at the end of the day with something new that shapes who we are and how we approach our work.

I thought more deeply about resources needed for board orientation yesterday, thanks to Don's post. I added a bookmark that will be shared widely with the nonprofit boards I encounter. And I saw - yet again - the power of connecting people with similar interests and varied expertise areas who share a common vision: a vibrant, transformative social sector.

This post certainly isn't ending where I expected. I started simply wanting to share a marvelous resource that should be of value to any of our boards. But it hit a nerve on a common refrain that I really wish more in the sector would get past. Nonprofits and their boards cannot afford to sit back and rest on the status quo. Surviving - no, thriving - in our current environment and in the future will require the capacity to stretch in ways we never conceived.

Those who can't or won't stretch will be left behind. Some will disappear altogether. Incredible resources to help us transform our organizations and communities we serve are available to us, in ways never before possible, thanks to "technology." We must reach out and engage with new people and organizations in new ways. We need to be proactive in not only locating the resources to help us act differently but ultimately being open to acting differently. One step in that direction is to get past the notion that "technology" has nothing of value for the "real world." Too much is at stake for our organizations and our communities for complacency.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The power of a great governance question

One thing I've long known - but didn't fully appreciate until I did my dissertation case study - is the power of the question in governance.

Questions prompt us to reflect, which doesn't often happen in the typically action-packed board agenda. There's "not enough time" to build in space to breathe, to ponder the ultimate impact of a decision about to be made or the decision that moved our organization closer to fulfilling our vision and mission.

Board members are busy people. We don't want to waste their time with even small blocks of unstructured space. I get that. I've been in too many meetings where my time was wasted, but the poor use of my time did not come from asking me to stop and think more deeply or broadly about the decision I was about to make.

For more than a decade, I've encouraged boards to incorporate one simple, questioning step into every meeting: end it by asking "How did we advance our mission?" There is powerful potential in asking and providing an answer as a group, however simple or small the response for that particular event. But perhaps even more important: there is an expectation and an anticipation that comes from knowing that we'll be asking that same question next month - and the month after that, etc. - building self-awareness and reinforcing the obvious need to be accountable for the board's ultimate responsibility.

Since reading and reflecting on the book that prompted my dissertation research, I've become immersed in a personal quest: understanding the kinds of questions that foster generative thinking, leading to higher-quality, mission-focused decisions and increased satisfaction with the governance experience.

What have I learned along the way? Some of the most powerful governance questions are, indeed, the most simple. One of the most important findings from my research came when, more than once, a member of that board asked the question, "how does this impact our mission?" While she brings many things to the boardroom table - including unique program-based expertise - her biggest contribution to governance may be her knack for raising that question at exactly the right time. More than once, I witnessed how posing that one question prompted the group to step back, consider the issue at hand from perspectives that were not immediately obvious, and end up making a very different decision. Powerful. And simple.

I witnessed the importance of another board member who was willing to assume a devil's advocate role with the board. Where her colleague's insertion of mission into seemingly routine decisions was almost unconscious, this board member deliberately stepped in to ensure that the board did not take the easy, potentially non-confrontational route. And, yes, I did see evidence of the board ending up somewhere else because she had the courage to take on that role.

Sometimes, though, the board needs different kinds of questions - catalytic questions - to draw them into deeper levels of governance work. Chait, Ryan and Taylor, authors of Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards, offer excellent examples that I love sharing with boards. An online version of the pages listing those questions is available (and I encourage visiting the original source), but I'll offer a few examples of what they offer:
  • What three adjectives or short phrases best characterize this organization?
  • What do you hope will be most strikingly different about this organization in five years?
  • What will be most different about the board or how we govern in five years?
  • What headline would we most/least like to see about this organization?
Can you see how those types of questions can lead to deeper, more creative thinking about not only your organization but also your board's role in moving it toward its best future?

Do you have space in your agenda now to encourage those kinds of questions (or any question that prompts reflective governance)? You do have space. Finding it, and making it a priority, is the real task.

Do you have people on your board who see issues from different frames? Are they empowered to express their different approach to thinking about the issues, even/especially when their approach deviates from the dominant direction of the group? Do you have people willing to play that devil's advocate role, or are you willing to assign members to play that role, on a rotating basis, at your next meeting? Will your board members be conscious of bringing in the "what about the mission" question as part of their governance routine?

Here's a radical idea: rather than building annual retreats around pounding out a strategic plan, make them open spaces for exploration, for really digging deeply into the big questions of the organization and the challenges and opportunities that shape the path toward vision and mission fulfillment. What if the intended outcome of those events was deeper understanding - of the organization, of the issues it addresses, of the potential for success, of the board's unique leadership role in making it all possible?

I continue to compile several good bookmarks addressing questions in governance. One that I want to point out comes from my friend and fellow blogger, Alison Rapping, who asked our Twitter friends to share great, creative questions. The resulting list yielded an incredible post that every board should bookmark and use. What I appreciate most about Alison's list is the fact it ranges from the lofty to the highly practical. Power comes via asking big and small questions.

What great questions are begging to be posed to your board? What questions lie inside, waiting for you to ask them? How will governance be different when they are asked? How will your organization end up closer to its vision and mission because you asked?

Friday, May 14, 2010

CWAM 2010: Exploring board practices

Later today, I present a workshop at the 2010 Colorado-Wyoming Association of Museums conference, introducing my new governance model, Board Practice Communities.

A lifetime has passed since I submitted the proposal and title. Last fall, at deadline time, my dissertation research and what it might contribute in 'real life' was still a jumble in my brain (an inevitable part of the process, I am told). The title I assigned it, "Mission-Driven Boards," reflected the one certainty I felt at the time.

Much has happened since that I e-mailed that proposal. For starters, I've resolved that "where does all of this lead" question - at least for the foreseeable future. Board Practice Communities is a work in progress, but it is a research-driven contribution to the governance conversation that I am proud to begin sharing.


I'm sharing my slides now, while the promise of a presentation-yet-to-be-given still flows. I welcome feedback, either here or on the wiki developed to support this work. (Be sure to visit the online handout created for this presentation and others to come. You'll find links to myriad resources on governance, those related to the workshop and those I've inevitably not had time to address.)

The other major shift: my expanded clarity about where all of this really begins: with the organization's vision of the future. If I were to re-submit that proposal today, I would aim much higher than the mission.



Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Changing the future - and ours

One of the greater personal benefits of my new affiliation with the Community-Driven Institute is the chance I have to observe (and participate in) an effective organization engaging in meaningful visioning and aligning its work with that evolving vision.

Really, it's a fascinating case study, one I'm fortunate to have access to as both a community member and as a researcher. Co-founder Hildy Gottlieb's blog provides an excellent public record of a lot of that work as it unfolds. Her latest post (here) offers the next installment of that story.

Now, it's an extraordinary time in CDI's history, unusual even for an organization in the business of transformation. But it does prompt me to wonder, even more than I already do, about the amazing things that could happen if more community benefit organizations made visioning work a higher priority. What if boards regularly carved out time to reflect on its organization's vision (if it has one - not a given) and mission, and to evaluating its role in moving closer toward fulfilling them.

What if board members held their stewardship role above all and based every decision made on how it advanced the vision and mission? What if they focused on ensuring that future as their unique responsibility and highest priority? How would their work differ? How would the organization's present situation differ? How would their experience of governance differ?

How would their community outcome differ because they successfully envisioned - and created - a better future?

Researcher me will remain glued to the details of how this process unfolds for CDI. But I also will continue to take inspiration from this case and hold it up as an example of what is possible when an organization and its leaders embrace their responsibility for defining the future. Great things will result for CDI and those it serves. Great things can happen for our organizations and the community we serve.