Monday, June 25, 2012

The healthy leadership team: Your feedback

So what is most critical to a health board/executive director relationship? I posed that question in a reader poll last week because, frankly, I didn't know the answer.

Well, I have a couple of thoughts, primarily coming from nearly 30 years of board service. But I really had no sense of how others might respond to that question. I asked, because I really wanted to know what you think - and to check my own fuzzy assumptions.

Now, my little poll is anything but "scientific." We won't generalize and prescribe based on the results. But they're interesting nonetheless, and the comments many shared are wonderfully insightful. I'm happy to share the highlights here, and to invite a conversation about what you see here.

First, the visual overview:

The percentages behind the chart:
  • Board clarity about roles - 9.5 percent
  • ED's clarity about roles - 0 percent
  • Common vision of the future - 23.8 percent
  • Common definition/understanding of governance - 7.1 percent
  • Mutual trust - 23.8 percent
  • Capacity to manage interpersonal relationships - 4.8 percent
  • Ability to manage conflict - 2.4 percent 
  • Open communication - 28.6 percent

I created an "other" option, knowing that I had inevitably left out a critically important factor in my initial list. A couple of new criteria were introduced: respect and the presence of experienced board members who keep the group focused on governance activities. Mostly, others who chose that option affirmed what most readers already know - that the "pick one," forced-choice nature of the poll asking participants to prioritize really ignored the inevitable. These criteria are intertwined and all play a role in a healthy relationship. Placing "respect" hand in hand with "mutual trust" was the most frequently recognized connection made.

At the recommendation of a friend who helped pilot the poll on the blog's Facebook page, I added a second question, requesting comments that might help expand the conversation a bit. I'm glad that I did: nearly one-third of poll participants responded to that question, and each added something significant to my understanding of the dynamics that facilitate (or inhibit) a healthy board/ED partnership. Space doesn't allow me to post all of those comments; here is a sampling of what they shared:
I chose trust, which I think implies respect. I've found that if I trust/respect board members first, then open communication, managing conflict, getting to a common vision and all the rest can be developed and nurtured. Hard to do that if there isn't trust....or, if trust has been broken.
I believe mutual trust is also very important and there has to be a sharing of responsibilities, i.e. sometimes I think when you have very competent EDs the board can be prone to sit back and let them handle everything. And, vice versa I think sometimes EDs expect their board to take on more work than they are willing to.
Through open communication, the board and ED will not only be able to manage conflict for also advance the organization's mission further, working together.
Having open communication would lead to all the other items. It's most important because that will be what generates things like clarity, common visions, mutual trust, interpersonal relationships, and mediation of arguments/conflicts.
 I'm still reflecting on the message of those results (and I'll be writing on those messages as they unfold for me). I'd be interested in your feedback: Do they resemble your own experiences? Are there any surprises? What's missing?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Quick poll: The healthy board/ED relationship

What factor is most critical to building and maintaining a healthy board/executive director relationship?  I'm interested in getting a feel for what board members and staff consider to be the case.

Please take a moment to respond to this quick poll. I'll report back with the results in a few days, so that we can discuss the outcome. (Note: there is space to offer a comment, if you'd like to expand. You may need to scroll down the side of the poll box to see it.)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

10 ways to respect nonprofit boards

This post is part of the occasional "10 ways" series - quick, practical responses to common questions about nonprofit boards and the work that they do.

We know - in theory, at least - that nonprofits can't live without their boards.

We know about the bottom line: to qualify for nonprofit status, we must have a board. We know that our boards assume ultimate legal accountability for our organizations. We know that they are the lead stewards of our vision and mission. We recognize that board members are volunteers, committing time and expertise, to our cause.

But do we act as if we know all of this? Do we show our boards that we respect both them and the responsibility that they accept on our behalf? Showing respect for our volunteer leaders involves more than mere words. Here are 10 ways to demonstrate our respect for both the institution of nonprofit governance and the individuals who provide it.

1. Adopt a definition of board work that values equally the three modes of the Governance as Leadership model - fiduciary, strategic and generative. Respect all three sets of responsibilities as essential to the board's role. Recognize that strategic thinking and governing are more than special events, and that generating creative answers to big questions are what boards are meant to do.

2. Recruit members who are prepared for, and interested in, governing in all three modes. Set expectations high. Spell them out in the recruitment process, before community leaders agree to serve, so that they can commit freely and fully. Hold all members to those expectations throughout their terms of service. Boards will rise to the level of accountability that is set for and by them.

3. Help members identify what they require to succeed - and do your best to meet those needs. What must they know about your mission area? About your organization and your services you provide? What aspects of governance do they need to understand better? How can the board improve its effectiveness as a working group? Don't assume you know the answers to these questions. Respect them enough to ask.

4. Make exploration and discovery a board responsibility. Foster an environment where it is okay for members to admit don't know something. Not only does this encourage board ownership of its learning, it also reduces the risk of one of the most troublesome board issues: making bad or inadequate decisions because we were too proud to admit we didn't understand.

5. Make asking future-focused questions the centerpiece of their work.  Give the board time to pose, reflect on, and discuss big questions - about opportunities and issues - that matter.  This is why most of us sign up in the first place: to make a difference in our community and to make the world a better place. Envisioning and creating capacity for a better future is the board's ultimate responsibility.

6. Don't waste their time. Do whatever you can to rid their agendas of reports focused on events past and management minutiae. Start meetings on time, and don't let them wander unproductively on topics that do not specifically address governance roles. Respect members' significant gift of time.

7. Value - and use - the gifts they bring to the table. Recognize their expertise and draw upon it to build the board's capacity to govern. Engage individual members in work that regularly draws upon their skills/knowledge and encourages them to assume situational leadership of board work in those areas.

8. Find meaningful ways to recognize member efforts. Don't assume you know how members like to be recognized. Ask. Don't wait until an annual banquet or formal event to acknowledge their contributions. Thank them in a timely manner - as projects are completed, as milestones are reached, as calls to stakeholders are made, as group leadership is demonstrated. Thank them sincerely. Thank them appropriately. Thank them in ways that are personally meaningful.

9. Share the board's work and contributions with staff and volunteers. Because there can a fine line between attentiveness and micromanagement, boards and senior staff often go to great lengths to maintain distance between the governing body and the front line. Along the way, what often happens is a vast misunderstanding about what the board does - and resentment about what appear to be arbitrary actions flowing from a mysterious group of outsiders. Educate your staff and volunteers about the board's leadership roles and governance responsibilities. Look for ways to provide context for board actions, especially those that impact daily staff and volunteer life. Welcome appropriate ways for board and staff to interact and understand each other better. Which brings me to...

10. Don't badmouth your board to others. Ever. They may occasionally challenge your sanity and your ability to accomplish your own work. But you must never air those frustrations to other audiences inside or outside of the agency. First, failure to live up to expectations seldom is solely the board's fault (see the other points of this list as a starting point). Second, you risk undermining the board's legitimate governance responsibilities and poisoning that ownership in their interactions with others. If the board isn't living up to expectations, ask why and work with them to change the environment. Don't criticize them behind their backs and wonder why staff resent policy decisions and why the board's credibility with external stakeholders is less than solid.

I certainly understand that our boards not only face challenges - they create them. We fall short of commitments. We lose steam, especially when the work gets hard or tedious. But our nonprofits do their boards a disservice by assuming the worst and by not supporting their role and their work as organizational and community leaders. They deserve our respect.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

When nonprofit boards succeed...

If we were 100 percent successful, what would our community look like? What would be different? For whom?"
-- Hildy Gottlieb

My friend Hildy has an uncanny knack for getting right to what really matters while simultaneously stretching us farther than most of us imagine possible. This quote/question is one I keep on the wall above my office desk, to remind me to ask these critical questions every day. What really is the point of the work that we do? What impact do we ultimately make on those around us?

While this particular quote resonates in all areas of my life, its greatest power lies in the context in which I first heard it posed: the work of nonprofit boards.

As you might suspect, I've developed a few ideas of my own as I've reflected on Hildy's multi-part question over the last two years. But rather than share them today, I'm more interested in hearing your perspectives. What ultimately is possible if our nonprofit boards succeed in advancing our respective visions and missions? If they are focused on the big questions and are motivated to lead toward the ideal horizon we've identified?

How will our communities, however we define them, be better because we embraced the power and responsibility that comes with nonprofit governance? How will our world change if we rise to our leadership potential?

Whether you respond as a member of a specific board or as someone who sees the potential of governing bodies across the sector, I'd appreciate having the chance to hear and share your response to Hildy's important question. The value of this post will come in the conversation that it sparks. Please take a moment to comment, to read and respond to others' comments, and help us generate a collective vision of the true potential of nonprofit governance.

Monday, June 11, 2012

10 ways to 'see' board culture

This post is part of the occasional "10 ways" series - quick, practical responses to common questions about nonprofit boards and the work that they do.

As I was writing last week's post, on "seeing" board culture, even as I took care to be as concrete and grounded in governance practices as possible, I knew that it was impossible to fully convey the experience and value of "culture" in one (more or less) brief post. Inevitably, it begged for follow-up.

This post, the latest addition to the "10 ways" series, attempts to provide that additional layer of concrete detail.  One stating-the-obvious note before I get to the good stuff: as hard as I might try, significant elements of "culture" remain largely invisible. But the following "10 ways" will bring us just a little closer to understanding how we can shape that culture to govern as effectively as possible.


1. A board culture that values generativity, accountability and leadership ultimately begins with the member job description. From the moment they are recruited, members know what is expected; and they come prepared to step up and fulfill the range of governance responsibilities they have accepted. Job descriptions that prepare members for that walk must be clear, comprehensive and shared widely.

2. In meetings (that are open and focused primarily on the board's governance roles), active member engagement is considered essential. Everyone has a role in, and a responsibility for, successful fulfillment of the board's collective responsibilities. No one sits in the background and watches others govern in his/her silence.

3. Committees, task forces and other work groups are created around governance roles (not management or staff functions). Their goals advance the board's collective accountability for one aspect of that work. As they develop a greater depth of knowledge, these groups become the board's primary resources and leaders on their assigned topic areas.

4. The board's structure facilitates its work without impeding its progress. It ensures that the resources to govern effectively are readily available when needed (e.g., an online board portal or regularly updated handbook). They have the tools they need, when they need them, to make the best possible decisions.

5.  Self-assessment - group and individual - is a regular and valued part of board life. The board stops periodically and asks such questions as, "How successfully are we fulfilling our responsibilities?" "What are our challenges?" "Do we need to shift focus and, if so, to what areas?" and "How are my motivations to serve being met in the work I'm doing on this board (and if not, what needs to happen to bring them into closer alignment?)?"


6. The vision and mission are front and center - literally and philosophically - in all of their deliberations and decisions. The board makes a point to regularly stop and ask, "How does this fit our mission?" They use that question as the ultimate test of whether a decision is the right one.

7. The board values, and seeks, learning that expands members' collective capacity in two areas: the essential elements of effective governance and the issues, potential and ongoing needs in the agency's mission area. Members understand that the learning required both takes place naturally - thanks to the curiosity and expertise in the room - and as part of their ongoing work. When they are scheduled, retreats and other special events are used to explore big questions even more deeply.

8. The board seeks, receives and considers regular community input at the boardroom table. Members understand the needs, impacts, and aspirations of the agency's stakeholders. They seek a broad range of perspectives in their governance work. The boardroom is an inclusive one, at all levels.

9. Stories that illustrate the impact of our work - the nonprofit's, the board's, our individual efforts - are embedded in all of the group's interactions. They arrive in the reports and resources shared in advance of the meeting. They are interwoven in the community feedback that we bring to the boardroom, in the stories we tell about our interactions on the agency's behalf, and in the board development activities that are a regular part of our processes.


10. Individual members make the time to reflect on why they serve this agency and its work. They value opportunities to recall, and draw from, their motivations to serve. They draw energy from articulating that connection, and in sharing it with others.

While this section is only one "way" long, the essential elements of thought - the largely invisible aspects of culture - undergird everything that preceded it. Our "thoughts," our essential beliefs about the world and the role our work plays in making it better, should drive everything that makes up our "walk" and our "talk."

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Seeing nonprofit board culture

Culture. We know we're part of it. We know it helps when it's healthy. We know it hinders - or poisons - when it's not. We can sense culture, but we're usually hard-pressed to describe it. Much of what encompasses culture is largely invisible, even/especially from the inside.

Still, it is important to understand organizational culture, even amidst the visibility challenges. Culture is where true change must take place and where commitment is built. We can't afford to ignore the role that it plays in building our capacity to advance our vision and mission, and in creating a work environment where that is possible.

A longtime interest in exploring organizational - and specifically board - culture has challenged me over the years to identify frameworks that would be both meaningful and accessible to practitioner audiences. How can we make "culture" real enough to spark member understanding and motivation to attend to it productively? How can "culture" become more than a fuzzy villain to blame when things fall apart?

Recently, I discovered a description that probably comes the closest to that actionable ideal, in Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant's new book, Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World.  In that text, the authors describe a three-pronged approach to culture that makes great sense to a nonprofit audience:
  • Walk
  • Talk
  • Thought
It's a simple framework. Some might argue that it's too simple for capturing the nuances that make up organizational culture. But this frame is descriptive and accessible enough to make it potentially useful in a board setting.  I read the book for broader purposes, but I couldn't help thinking about this definition and how it might be adapted to the boardroom.  I also overlaid it with my own conceptualization of the optimal governance environment, which features four factors:
  • Inclusive
  • Engaging
  • Accountable
  • Generative
Here is how I envision the potential of Notter and Grant's framework (with a Beck governance twist).

Walk. Notter and Grant describe this as actions, structures, processes and tangibles. A healthy board walk would includes activities that engage all board members - that expect and respect their work and their leadership contributions. Those processes, and the meetings where many of them are enacted, balance accountability and generativity. The board is attuned to both and attentive to work that fulfill both roles. Structures would facilitate, not impede, governance work. They would provide necessary support and accountability.

The "tangibles" are the materials that support members and their work. They are the resources, information, tools, connections, etc., that facilitate governance and promote successful fulfillment of their responsibilities. In a healthy board culture, members would have ready access to the tools and information they need to govern credibly, thoughtfully, and generatively.

Talk. At the center of our board "talk" is how we describe our vision and mission, how we articulate our values, and how we frame and share the work that our organization does. How do we communicate our purpose and the forces driving our commitment to it, to internal and external audiences? How does that talk motivate us as individuals? How does it connect us to each other?

In the boardroom, it includes how define governance (and the roles that comprise it) and how we frame the issues that we address. Do we view our responsibilities, and our service, as focused on the here and now, or on the stewardship and moral ownership that comes with governance? Is our vision of what is possible in our community, a better future for that community? Does our definition of the issues we address represent an appropriate stretch: tangible enough to see and act, but not so small that they're easy to resolve and ultimately meaningless?

Does our "talk" encourage authentic inclusion and meaningful engagement by all members? Does it maintain that accountability/generativity balance, acknowledging the significant stewardship function while recognizing that the board's ultimate focus should fall beyond the horizon?

Thought.  "Thought" is manifest in the previous two functions, but it's more foundational than the observable activities they represent (and undoubtedly hardest to "see" or describe). It's what we hold in our minds and our hearts, as individual members and as a group. It's what motivates us to serve - what provides the connective tissue between personal passions and organizational vision and mission.

Thought is how we embody our organizational values (and how we identify the fit to those we hold personally). It is how we reflect on the vision and mission and how we stay focused, even through the difficult and tedious times. It's what keeps us committed through the awesome and daunting responsibilities of governance.

How do we inspire and motivate board members? How do we build commitment - in their hearts as well as their minds? How do we help them build and sustain passion for the long haul?

I'm still pondering how this conceptualization of culture might be used to begin helping boards to understand (and manage) the factors that create the environment in which they exist. Such a basic frame undoubtedly may oversimplify the range of factors that impact how groups develop the space for productive, respectful, engaging work. On the other hand, it offers a way of thinking about that environment, not only for identifying challenges but also actively shaping it.

How would you rate its potential for facilitating understanding how we work? How would you rate its potential value for facilitating ownership of those processes and the outcomes?