Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Quick poll: High-impact board priorities

Where is the greatest potential for high-impact nonprofit governance? Which board priority areas have the greatest potential for true leadership? I'm launching a new reader poll to get your feedback on these questions.

Please click on the link below to respond to four very brief questions about high-impact board priorities. I'll report on the results in a new post next week.

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey, the world's leading questionnaire tool.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Weaving the leadership web: Takeaways

This post concludes 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. The third post shared the key findings. Today, I offer my takeaways.

It had been a long time since I last recalled the "big news" of the research described in this series: those ideas that informed my thinking as a researcher and budding nonprofit scholar and challenged some of the assumptions about "how things work" as a novice board member.

Today, with the benefit of several years of life and board experience, I'm reading those "big" findings in more nuanced ways. As I close out this series, I'd like to reflect on what I'm seeing today.

The director-centered organization. Researcher Me received evidence of the executive director's central role as an example of the models I discovered while preparing for the field work. I mentioned in the last post that, while I was surprised to find such clear evidence in an organization officially represented by a traditional hierarchy, it made sense. My understanding at the time was simplistic, much like my simplistic view of my role as a novice board member. But the pivotal location of the ED within the organization ultimately resonated.

At the time, I remember marveling at the power - largely unrecognized - that accompanies the ED's information gatekeeper role. In many organizations, what the board knows comes primarily (if not exclusively) through an ED filter. The potential for abuse was not lost on me. Today, I am just as aware of that power, even as I understand how that filter facilitates the board's ability to make informed decisions and avoid detail overload.

Rather than encourage suspicion, I would today counsel boards to do two things: First, acknowledge the equal, but different, leadership responsibilities that they share with the chief executive. Embrace them, discuss them openly, and find the appropriate way to make the collective effort work for the organization. Second, take responsibility for educating yourselves about the agency and the mission area. Don't place the sole burden for your capacity to make the best decisions possible on the shoulders of your ED. Be clear about identifying what you need from your executive, in what formats. Don't expect him/her to guess.

Unrealistic board expectations. I've been unconsciously attempting to address this issue - here and elsewhere - since this research closed. At the time, I read "unrealistic expectations" as rejecting the notion of the all-knowing, all-wise, over-involved board sitting atop the organizational chart. Today that clarity is about making the most of that precious leadership time. How do we engage board members, where do we focus their attention and energy? Do our board job descriptions place members in the middle of management functions (inviting micromanagement) or at the leading edge of the mission - exploring, deliberating, connecting toward the organization's vision of the future? Are our meetings structured for that future-focused governance work? Do our members have the capacity, support, information, etc., to make the most of the limited time they have to serve?

Dual organizational charts/separate subscultures. Today, I see how these two originally separate findings are intertwined. I'll discuss them here as one. While I don't encourage keeping two organizational charts, as the case study agency had done, I do recommend spending time collectively understanding and describing the ways in which work is done and how people interact. That may or may not resemble the formal organizational structure. It may or may not require adjusting the latter to better fit reality.

How is the mission communicated and enacted across the organization? How are responsibilities distributed, and how do all of those efforts contribute to organizational success and well being? Board, staff and volunteers should understand and appreciate what the others bring to the table and how each of those individual sets of responsibilities create the whole.

That lack of understanding contributed to the existence of separate subcultures that I witnessed during my field research. The silo around the board was particularly thick: board members had no idea what staff and volunteers really did; volunteers and staff knew nothing about the significant governance responsibilities that the board assumed on the agency's behalf. The potential for misunderstandings that lead to conflict are vast in this kind of environment. The likelihood that full mission success will elude the agency, because the various subcultures are operating in isolation - or worse, opposition - is equally large. The "who are these people to tell us..." resentment threatens morale.

Confidentiality commitment does not allow me to share details of the rest of the story. There is a "rest of the story," it's ugly, and it is related to this final takeaway. A very public breakdown occurred months after my research was complete. It was not hard to see that, behind the public event was a more fundamental and pervasive issue that I saw in my interviews and observations: different groups within the organization operating under very different assumptions about how to advance the mission on which they all agreed.

Was this multi-part reflection worth the time and space I gave it? For many readers, the answer may be "no." For me, though, it was a much-needed opportunity to revisit, rethink and ultimately remember early context for what has unfolded in the years since I completed this study.

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.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Weaving the leadership web: The theory

This post continues a brief series sharing highlights from my earlier research on the board/executive director relationship. My first post outlines the premise of the research. Today, I share the theoretical perspectives that provided the foundation for this work.

What does the average relationship between nonprofit board and chief executive look like, and how does that impact the ways in which those parties actually interact?

That wasn't the big question driving my journey to understand what broke down in one of my early board terms. Rather, it was an alternative approach to thinking about the answer that led to my thesis research - and a new way of understanding the nonprofit leadership team.

Oddly enough, I discovered two separate, complementary versions of a director-centered leadership model almost simultaneously. One, the Emerging Alternative Model (EAM), appeared in a nonprofit text, Robert Herman and Richard Heimovics' Executive Leadership in Nonprofit Organizations: New Strategies for Shaping Board-Executive DynamicsThe second, Sally Helgesen's Web of Inclusion, was found in women's leadership literature. One took a more interpersonal approach to framing the ED's centrality; the other acknowledged the leader's real  role in the organizational structure.  I wasn't looking for them - or a framework placing the functional leader at the center. But that is what I found, and it stretched my thinking to surprising limits.

Now, with several years of board life experience behind me, what they describe makes perfect sense. It also doesn't require complete abandonment of the ideal vision of board service that I have fine-tuned along the way. In fact, it's an integral part of that vision. At the time, however, the notion felt downright revolutionary.

Connecting within and across the organization - reaching in and out from a central hub - was the centerpiece of Helgesen's Web.  So, too, was a "collegial atmosphere" that "enables people to focus on what needs to be done rather than who has the authority to do it" (1995, p. 21).  Flexibility was another hallmark. In a circular model, people shift easily within the organization. Helgesen wrote:
Also like a spider's web, the structures were continually being built up, stretched, altered, modified and transformed....At their outer edges, the webs were permeable, a bit loose, which left open the question of who was part of the organization and who was not. This permeability served to allow outsiders access, ad gave insiders ways of connecting directly to the outside. (Helgesen, p. 20)
 Helgesen's model is one of empowerment, of shared ownership and commitment to common goals and aspirations, whether or not the organizational chart actually shows that. It's how the work actually gets done in these organizations, she says. (p. 27) 

Herman and Hemovics' EAM  model intrigued me, first, because it explicitly addressed the nonprofit setting and, second, because it laid out a vision of nonprofit leadership as a shared responsibility. I summed up their premise (from H&H, p. 58) this way in the thesis literature review:
The belief that the board sets policy and the staff simply implements it is erroneous, because design and implementation of plans are always necessarily linked. The EAM acknowledges that executive directors are important participants in the decision-making process, as they should be. They have the expertise and an array of 'organizationally relevant' information available. To try to suggest that the director play a passive role in making decisions that affect the organization is unrealistic and not particularly desirable. (Beck, p. 18)
As a naive young community servant, I remember being utterly floored by what Herman and Heimovics described.

The EAM made it okay to focus the board's attention and energy where they are more likely to make a difference (versus pretending they passed down perfect, fully-informed decisions down from on high).  The authors suggested that board time is better spent on such functions as "Establishing contacts, raising funds, enhancing the organization's reputation and giving it legitimacy, representing it publicly and politically, and giving it advice..." (p. 65)  They did not absolve the board of its oversight responsibilities. Instead, they created a mode of governance that focused more on community ambassadorship and a higher level of mission stewardship.

Herman and Heimovics also pointed out what definitely will ring true for readers who have served in that ED position:  when things go wrong, it's usually the chief executive who assumes greater responsibility, even when ultimate accountability falls on the board's shoulders.
[S]ince chief executives are going to be held responsible, and since they do accept responsibility for mission accomplishment and public stewardship, perhaps they should work to see that boards fulfill their legal, organizational and community roles. We advocate this...not only because it is consistent with legal requirements and voluntaristic values, but also because...it is more likely to lead to organizational effectiveness. (p. 56)
It may have been absolutely obvious to a nonprofit veteran, but it stopped me in my tracks. 

In reality, EDs play pivotal communication and coordination roles with and within the board. They also, as Herman and Heimovics note, "attend to board members' feelings and needs, envision changes in organizational functioning, promote and reinforce board accomplishments, and provide useful decision-making information to the board" (p. 57)

If we're honest, we'll admit that that's what most of our EDs do.

While other aspects of the literature review informed my research - and undoubtedly would be of great interest to readers here - these director-centered models not only provided the foundation for that scholarly work, they began the process of shifting how I see and conceptualize nonprofit governance and leadership. Acknowledging the ED's pivotal leadership role made room for a more realistic understanding of where the board can make its greatest contributions - including but beyond the legal bottom line.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Weaving the nonprofit leadership web

We all know how the typical nonprofit organizational chart is set up. At the top of everything is a board of directors, with a downward arrow pointing to an executive director, and more downward arrows connecting that person to one to many staff positions or departments. Specifics may vary, but the message is clear: the board sets policy, and the ED dutifully implements it.

It's clean. It rings familiar to those who work in the private or public sectors. But does it reflect what really happens in a nonprofit setting?

I've long been conscious of the unique nature of the nonprofit board/ED relationship (and how unlike that org chart it really is). While it's implied and embedded in posts across this site, I've never specifically addressed the dynamics of that partnership - or whether the way we officially define it actually is true - on this site. The funny thing is, I once immersed myself in that question, in research that led to an award-winning* master's thesis in organizational communication. Now that I've introduced a more deliberate conversation regarding the nonprofit leadership team, it feels like a good time to share this work with you.

Summarizing months of research, and not writing another thesis, undoubtedly requires more than a single post. My next post will share the theoretical perspective that provided context - and some of the bigger 'aha' moments. Others will discuss the findings and my analysis - then and now. In the remaining space of this post, I'll describe the research questions and the approach I took to explore it.

The research questions

 I hoped to explore the following questions as I embarked on this research:

  • How do organizational leaders develop a cultural identity among volunteers, board and staff and foster loyalty to the group's mission and goals?
  • How closely does the "official" organizational chart reflect actual dynamics and what are the consequences?

The opportunity to  check assumptions, and witness organizational communication and "culture" in the field, provided the larger motivation for this case study. At the back of my mind were experiences as a board member, in another setting, that I struggled to understand.

The case study method

As was the case with my dissertation, the questions driving this research required a qualitative method. I couldn't survey "culture." I couldn't quantify "communication." I chose a case study that included a mix of meeting observations, content analysis of documents and interviews with board members, staff, the executive director, and a sample of front-line volunteers. The goal was thick description (tip of the hat to Clifford Geertz) of those communication processes and an attempt to identify and interpret the ways in which meaning making takes place in the organization. How is "culture" created and sustained, and how does it facilitate collective advancement of the organization's mission?  I had no idea what I would find, or how it might be used to understand how that specific organization helps and hinders its own work. And, while I knew that qualitative research can never be generalized beyond the setting in which it was conducted, I wondered whether there might be lessons learned that could benefit others.

In my next post, I'll share highlights of the literature review that, at the time, felt incredibly revolutionary (and shaped the research questions themselves).

*  The research behind this thesis won the international 1997 Kenneth E. Clark Student Research Award from the Center for Creative Leadership.