Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Weaving the leadership web: Key findings

This post continues a brief series sharing highlights from my earlier master's-level research on the board/executive director relationship. My first post outlines the premise of the research. The second post describes theoretical perspectives underpinning this work. In this week's post, I share the 'big news' emerging from this case study.

I entered this case study, researching communication processes within a typical nonprofit organization, knowing what I wanted to explore but having no sense of what the observations and interviews might uncover. I was curious about the executive director's role, especially given exposure to two director-centered models during preparation for the research. But frankly, given my relative inexperience with the board/CEO partnership at the time, I entered this work with a very elementary (and very unrealistic) sense of the average nonprofit organizational culture and communication processes.

I was a functionally blank slate, holding the naive belief in the omniscient board at the top of the organizational chart. What I found absolutely blew that notion out of the water - and began the journey toward a very different conceptualization of nonprofit leadership.

Four consistent, and slightly surprising (to me) themes emerged during the field research:

The executive director as organizational heart. As described in the director-centered Emerging Alternative Model and Web of Inclusion (described in last week's post), this individual provided the day-to-day leadership and mission connection for everyone in the organization. She was the link between all other internal stakeholder groups - board, staff and volunteers. This person's influence was felt across the organization in myriad visible and invisible ways. Revisiting this with the benefit of time, I can't say I really was surprised by this finding. Rather, I had a chance to see the ways in which this person links everyone else to the agency's mission and keeps them motivated (and equipped) to move toward it. I also witnessed the critically important, and largely unacknowledged, information gatekeeper role that this person assumes. This is especially true for the board: the ED regularly makes critical decisions about what the board hears/sees/knows. Or not.

Unrealistic expectations of the board. In the immediate blur of post-study reporting and reflecting, the first finding was the truly "big" news. But this second theme probably ended up having the greatest personal and professional impact. As part-time volunteers, board members have functional limits to what they are willing and able to provide in their contributions of time. In the midst of post-study analysis, I translated that into the need to trust the ED to handle day-to-day management responsibilities. Now, I understand it means that we must do our best to help board members focus on the real work of governance. It is interesting to re-read the evidence I offered to support this theme, and to see that the members understood these limits - and their accountability responsibilities - better than I did.

Competing organizational models. The board acknowledged a gap between the way the agency said it operates and the way it really operates, going as far as approving two organizational models. One model described the accountability and reporting lines (shared primarily with external audiences, e.g., grantors). The other described the "real" communication processes as they saw them. The absolutely fascinating little twist to this - aside from organizational awareness that there was a gap between the org chart and the way they actually functioned - was the circular format of the "communication" model. The major difference between this agency's circular model and those I encountered in the literature review: at the center was the nonprofit's mission.

Separate cultures. This one was lost in the thesis "big news" shuffle, but its impact has the potential to be the largest and most problematic for an organization. In interviewing board, staff and volunteers, I found evidence of three distinct organizational cultures within this single organization. Without regular opportunities to interact and/or stay abreast of each other's activities, groups within the organization operated in separate communication silos. The board was its own subculture, largely isolated from the rest of the organization. Staff and high-involvement, front-line volunteers formed another subculture. Low-involvement volunteers formed the third. At the center of the differing approaches was the question of the agency's social change mandate: the responsibility to focus on changing community norms and actions while serving current needs. Is there a "political" foundation to Agency X's work? If you asked staff and volunteers, the response was a resounding "yes." When the respondent was a board member, the typical answer was "not so much." Functionally speaking, such a foundational disagreement has the potential to impact decisions of focus, resource allocation, and "the way we do things here" (culture).

 As an ethical qualitative researcher, I must caution against generalizing findings beyond this one organization, captured at this one point in time. Practically speaking, I predict that many readers will recognize aspects of their own organizations in at least one of these themes. I welcome your insights, observations and examples, as they can help affirm, contradict, expand or transform what I have shared in this all-too-brief summary.

In the final installment of this series, I will reflect on both those insights that emerged in the midst of the research and the reactions I am having today, with the benefit of time and experience.

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