Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Building reflective boards: Self-assessment

It is critically important for nonprofit boards to stop, reflect, evaluate and appreciate their performance. It's also extremely rare that the typical board takes that time - or uses what members learn when they do.

Board self-assessment has been on my mind in the last month, thanks in part to the launch of an online version of Alice Korngold's powerful Board Vector tool. I saw great potential in the original, paper-based version of her assessment process. Taking it online will only enhance its capacity to provide meaningful, data-driven opportunities to evaluate our performance as boards. I also had a chance to facilitate a local board's self-assessment process, appreciating its commitment to taking this step and helping them to explore what members could learn from the results.

Both events reminded me of the ultimate value of committing to regular, focused reflection on our efforts to govern and our attempts to reach our full leadership potential. They also have sparked thinking about the elements that I consider to be essential to high-quality, high-impact board self-assessment. What follows is a summary of those emerging thoughts. I'd appreciate feedback, especially from members of boards that regularly commit to evaluation, on what is realistic, what's missing and - most important - what actually works.

First, commit to individual and board-level self-assessment. Recognize the value in affirming what you are doing well, and to identifying those processes and actions that require change. Approach these evaluative activities as opportunities to learn, grow, and improve.

Second, recognize that there are different layers of assessment: board vs. individual, formal vs. informal, quick check vs. more extensive reflection. Each has something to contribute to your understanding, each has potential to deepen your focus and effectiveness.

Third, make assessment an ongoing part of your routine and board culture. Look for opportunities to stop, reflect, appreciate and adjust in the moment. Make asking "how does this impact our mission?" an integral part of every major deliberation. End each meeting with one question: How did we advance the mission today? Schedule regular time for more formal individual and group self-assessments.

Fourth, understand that the ultimate value lies in the discussion and exploration that assessment sparks. Look at the results, not as a "grade," but as an opportunity to ask
  • What does this really mean? 
  • Where are the differences of opinion? 
  •  What is behind those differences? 
  • How can we use this as a springboard for the future?

    Fifth, don't rely on "numbers" alone. Ask members open-ended questions about their experiences, their aspirations, their frustrations. Listen. Appreciate. Link their responses to what others have shared, to the assessment outcomes, and to the board's goals for the future. Look for gaps between numerical scores and the comments shared. Are they consistent, or do they contradict each other in any way?

    Sixth, look for safe ways to participate and neutral opportunities to facilitate the resulting discussion. One of the beauties of having anonymous ways to contribute, like the online version of Alice's Board Vector, is the safety that they provide and the increased potential they offer for honest responses. If I feel our board has some issues that need to be addressed, will I hesitate to express those concerns on a paper form that I'm turning in to our ED or president? If that process is online, or if a neutral facilitator is involved, concerns about confidentiality dissipate and the board receives more honest answers. (Note: Yes, I realize outside facilitators may introduce a cost that your board is unable or unwilling to bear. If that is the case, consider establishing a trade-off with another nonprofit: ask someone from a partner organization to collect and summarize data for you, and volunteer someone from your agency to do something for them in return. It's not the same as having a qualified consultant who knows how to recognize and explore the nuances in what is shared, but it at least addresses confidentiality concerns.)

    Finally, don't assume that high marks accurately reflect high performance - or consensus about performance. You and I may be absolutely certain that we know what our mission really means and that we're absolutely contributing to its fulfillment. We may even give the board the same, perfect score on that criterion. But unless we sit down and ask ourselves, "what does that look like?" and "how, exactly, are we accomplishing that," we may never realize that we're operating from very different perspectives. These are the kinds of conversations that boards need to have - but seldom do. Committing to self-assessment helps to ensure that they happen regularly and that they lead to productive and necessary adjustments.

    As I said at the beginning of this post, this is the first time I've attempted to synthesize my thoughts about board self-assessment (even as I'm perpetually harping on the need for reflective board practice). I welcome your examples, challenges, insights, etc., and the chance to understand self-assessment's true value more fully.

    Hmmm. I feel a series brewing...


    Nancy Iannone said...

    Once again you have raised some thoughtful questions around the practice and meaning of board assessments. I don't see many boards that even know that self-assessment is an option, let alone an opportunity to create a more effective and fulfilling role. As I read your post, I kept wondering what it would take to create a board culture that values reflection and assessment. Looking forward to hearing more.

    Debra Beck, EdD said...

    I'd second your observation about boards not knowing self-assessment is an option. I've definitely seen evidence of that in my various sector interactions. The other common thread: fear of the results amongst some who do know. You've hit the proverbial nail on the head when you acknowledge the most important purpose of evaluation: the chance to learn and grow in effectiveness.

    The culture question...

    It all seems to come down to that, doesn't it? That's one of the reasons I'm hoping we can begin a discussion on this particular component, especially the chance to hear from boards who have incorporated assessment into their routine. What shifts has that fostered, in the way the board works and in the way individual members understand and commit to that leadership?

    John Lynch said...

    [Cross-posted from BoardSource discussion group on LinkedIn]

    Dr. Beck,
    I am also not surprised by the poll results on your blog. Not surprising because of how much of assessment relies on data; if boards don't track their own data, I don't know what objective measurements are available for a board to use for self-assessment.

    Moreover, I think you are onto something with the suggestion in your poll that some boards are reluctant to engage in self-assessment for fear of what they might uncover. It is true for the board as a whole and the individuals serving on the board. In my limited experience serving on and working with boards I feel that there are some people who enjoy serving on boards more for the sense of community (i.e. network) it provides them rather than advancing an organization's mission. Those two motives don't need to be mutually exclusive - and thankfully in many cases they are not - but when board members prioritize their own status on the board above the organization's strategic imperatives self-assessment will not begin voluntarily. This is likely especially true when the assessment might uncover embedded assumptions that challenge the organization's raison d'etre. Self-assessment requires us to not only acknowledge hard truths but to confront them.

    Tracy Houston said...

    An eBook (Amazon $9.99) that is a great resource:

    Board Evaluation: Creating Strategic Performance and Effectiveness