In the first of this year’s contributions to my “10 ways” series, I offer 10 ways to deepen your board’s engagement and members’ motivation to lead.
(1) Board gifts – Take stock of the gifts your members already bring to the boardroom table. Make an effort to mine those previously unknown talents that could be called to service for the board and your agency. Take the time to appreciate those gifts, to show that they are valued and that they make a difference, on a regular basis. Use them as the foundation for building board capacity.
(2) Board learning – Commit to identifying learning needs and embedding opportunities to address them into your work. Remember that you have three types of board development needs: about your mission area (e.g., homelessness), about your organization (e.g., services, stakeholders), and about governance in general (e.g., improving your capacity to engage in generative discussions). Identify at least one topic in each area for special focus this year, and build a board development plan around those needs. Acknowledge that deep and open discussions facilitate learning. Accept that setting aside time for shared expertise by peers isn’t a meeting distraction, it’s part of governing and capacity building. Explore and circulate free- and low-cost, distance-delivered learning resources (like Carlo Cuesta’s excellent webinars) to board members. Share online and other resources that expand board members’ knowledge base. Make it easy for them to access and discover the information they need.
(3) Board mission – Take some time to articulate a common understanding of your unique leadership purpose. What unique contributions do you bring to your organization? How does your collective leadership impact not only your nonprofit but your community? What values drive actions? Don’t fall into the familiar mission statement trap and get tangled in the specific words. The most important outcome of this process is the conversation: the consensus and clarity that (hopefully) emerge. But see if you can take that extra step and put your purpose into words – then use it as an extra reminder to stay focused on the governance work that only you can do. (I feel a post - or two - coming on this one.)
(4) Board outreach – Make this the year that board members embrace their role as community ambassadors. Help them identify stakeholders with whom they have connections, with whom they would be willing to engage on your behalf. Identify goals for that engagement –don’t let them proceed without clarity about why they are reaching out, and access to the resources (knowledge, materials, etc.) they need to succeed. Remind them that engagement is a two-way process: it’s as important to listen (and share what they learn) as it is to speak. Raise the profile of boundary spanning a valued role that they assume when they join your board.
(5) Board storytelling – Whether it’s sharing as part of their ambassador role, deepening their learning, or something else entirely, expand your board’s toolbox (and understanding) via storytelling. Offer ample examples that illustrate your impact on the community that board members can in turn share with others. Give them the chance to describe their experiences as volunteers and leaders – articulate their own stories – and to practice conveying them to others. Create board experiences that lead to new individual and collective stories. Record testimonials that everyone can pass on to others. Make your mission about more than numbers.
(6) Board reflective practice – It begins with self-assessment. Accept it as a rich opportunity to learn about both your strengths and your growth areas as individual members and as a collective. Build formal assessment into your board calendar, commit to undertaking that work, and to learning from what emerges. More generally, though, understand the value of being more generally reflective as a group – asking why, to what ends, how to be more effective next time. (Note: expect to see much more about this in 2013.)
(7) Board committee empowerment – I don’t mean “empowerment” as in “assuming power that rightfully belong to the larger group.” I do mean giving our committees big, governance-focused goals that keep the board focused on its larger leadership responsibilities. Empower them to do the deeper research and become our peer experts on their assigned area. Charge them with educating the board as a whole and facilitating discussion in advance of decisions made. Increase their work’s value to the board’s governance responsibilities.
(8) Board generative thinking – Begin with big, generative questions. Work as if those big questions were your purpose as a board – because they are. Identify the questions that will drive your organization’s mission and the board’s work, early enough to engage in creative thinking that shapes the discussions and the options available while they still matter. Welcome critical thinking, from multiple perspectives, as those decisions are under consideration. Explore the Governance as Leadership model, especially the generative mode. Schedule board retreats focused on big questions (and make emerging with more questions an acceptable – even desirable – outcome).
(9) Board/CEO relationship – Have that discussion you’ve probably been avoiding. Talk to your CEO about your joint leadership responsibilities. Have open conversations about what you need from each other to succeed, about what’s working and what’s problematic, and about what’s needed to lead your nonprofit into the future it is intended to fulfill.
(10) Board meeting agendas – Finally, if you skip the previous nine priorities and commit to only one action to enhance your board’s effectiveness, this should be the one. Clear your agendas of long, mind-numbing reports. Move routine activities to a consent agenda, where they can be handled via a single vote. Put the time that all of that opens up to good use: learning, discussing, exploring and governing.