Sunday, August 19, 2012

Strength building on board strength

  "Strength builds upon our strengths, not upon our weaknesses." Pollyanna Principle #5.

    Do our boards act as if they believe this? Can they identify their - and your - strengths? Or do they choose to focus instead on all of the challenges standing in their way? Do they use those challenges as excuses to sit back, complain, and justify their lack of action?

   This weekend, I rediscovered this gem from my friend, Hildy Gottlieb. It's part of a series introducing her Pollyanna Principles, a transformative paradigm for viewing, and acting in, the world.

   While the principles carry great collective power, this one always resonates deeply for me - and reminds me of too many conversations I have in the sector. Frequently, it's an executive director of other senior staff member. Too often, it's a board member. Sometimes my own board peers. Sometimes me.

It's certainly easy to fall into the "but it's so haaaaaard..." frame of mind that Hildy describes - because it is hard. Leadership, especially leadership that transforms communities, is hard. It's also what makes board service worthwhile and what ultimately leads to successful fulfillment of our vision and mission. 

A strengths-based way of acting and being in the world must start with our boards. They define and hold ultimate accountability for our mission and all of the resources gathered to advance it. How do we harness their individual and collective strengths in service to our mission? As board members, how do we hold ourselves accountable and focused on the future? What would happen if that focus began with what we do have (even if it's not a lot), rather than what we desperately need and will "never" get?

When we're in the midst of the troubles of today, it can be hard to "see" the assets that may be right in front of us.  What exactly are our assets? Hildy offers four types to help us begin the conversation:
  • Mission assets: "What you do"
  • Human assets: "Who you know"
  • Physical assets: "What you have"
  • Community assets: "The mission assets, human assets and physical assets of everyone else"
I've used this framework in retreats and seen the lights come on as board members recognize they have assets from which to build. I've seen boards begin the process thinking "but we don't have anything/know anyone...," then marvel as the "nothing" becomes long lists of resources already in hand or within reach.

It's a fantastic and energizing way to spend part of a retreat. But if we reserve our asset-based discussions and work for special events, we're missing the point. We're also doomed to fall short of our potential as a governing body and as community leaders.

I'm interested in sparking a conversation about how our boards resist the urge to wallow in what we don't have. How do we keep a strengths-based, asset-based focus in the boardroom? How do we govern from a position of power and pride, confident in our assets and our ability to build upon them? How can we lead from that strength and draw other community assets to our vision?

How will our communities be better because we've succeeded at doing so?


Kevin Monroe said...


I love this post and the great insights it offers and the questions it asks. I'm always reinvigorated when I see the power of Asset Based Approaches or Appreciative Inquiry at work. It's so much more fun than wallowing in the cesspool of lack and weakness.

Here are a couple of ideas on how we can begin to flip the switch:

Imagine if the first five minutes of every meeting were focused on celebrating what we did (or what went) RIGHT since the last meeting. That would provide a different starting place.

How would it feel for a board to spend a few minutes reviewing how the organization's assets have grown/multiplied through their work for the community? The new connections made, the new partnerships established, client successes, etc.

I think that board would be at a different place to consider whatever items are on the agenda from this strengths-based perspective.

This would be fun...imagine if every board at every meeting assigned someone to be the Asset Advocate rather than the Devil's Advocate. Their job for that meeting is to identify existing assets in the community or organization that could be focused on whatever issue is being discussed at that moment. They are lifting the discussion to "what we have" rather than "what we lack".

Taking a strengths-based approach certainly moves us closer to the goal line than bemoaning what we don't have.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Oh, so much goodness here, Kevin! There is so much potential power in something so simple, like opening a meeting celebrating something done right. "Right" on the mark! It sets the tone - and offers new evidence/stories to share, etc., that can be leveraged in other ways.

And, whew, do I love your Asset Advocate idea! What a fantastic way to encourage awareness (sharing and action, too!) of the assets that exist around them - on a regular basis, integrated into the board's work. I may just have to steal that one in my own boards. ;)

Bottom line, boards simply must find ways to build on existing assets, explore new opportunities, and engage an ever expanding groups of supporters. Wallowing gets us nowhere.

Thanks so much!