Sunday, February 24, 2013

Board group process: Thinking aloud

Since publicly committing to spend this year exploring board process and practice, I've been immersed in reading, reflection and rediscovery of my organizational communication roots.

So many of the frustrations I hear about - and witness - in the nonprofit boardroom boils down to plain, old interpersonal communication and group dynamics challenges: how we interact, the roles we play (functional or not), the capacity we have to address problems (or not) head-on. What really happens when boards meet deserves greater visibility and conversation, and I've committed to helping to facilitate that.

Since making that December commitment, I've read, explored, bookmarked, and reached a level of complete saturation to the point of paralysis. So many ideas, from so many sources, beg to be shared here and added to the already long list of questions I'd like to cover in my next round of board research.  Finding a manageable way to do that has been extremely challenging.

Normally, I'd create a private process for capturing all of the essential ideas, quotes, etc., from each source for future reference and later use in a literature review. I'll still do that. But I also want to add a public component to that process: a periodic series of "process" posts that summarize the highlights of the sources that are influencing my thinking.

These posts also will include the questions that call me, and an invitation to conversation about how those ideas and questions fit (or not) your nonprofit board experiences. I hope that readers will help me maintain a practice focus to my thinking and ultimately point me to those questions and issues that will most impact how boards function and the next phase of my research agenda.

In addition to several great general titles covering group dynamics, team building and communication, my initial set of posts will include books and other resources originating in corporate governance. One of the biggest shocks in my readings over the last year has been the relatively frequent and open ways in which lead writers and thinkers on the corporate governance side have addressed interpersonal and group challenges.

The rich conversation that emerged from a question I posted in the international "Boards and Advisors" LinkedIn group affirmed for me that our corporate cousins are far ahead of the nonprofit sector in talking about the phenomena that all too often erect obstacles to governance success.

The generosity with which group members shared not only insights but resources provided an additional spark to act on my "group process" impulse.  In fact, the first two resources I'll cover in this series were shared by members of that group in that discussion.

Posts won't be published consecutively; there are too many important board topics to cover along the way. But they already feel like an important step toward opening up the sector discussion. Stay tuned for the first in that series, probably published later this week. I'm anxious to get started and begin the conversation with you.

Note: in addition to the bookmarks linked earlier in this post, I'll share a new Pinterest board I've set up to support this work: Board Process Resources.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

What drives us nuts in the boardroom: Sharing reader feedback

What really drives us nuts in the nonprofit boardroom? What interpersonal issues challenge our ability to work together as effectively as possible?

As I continue to research group dynamics, I found myself needing a brief reality check. That led to the quick poll posted last week. What emerged in that (very unscientific*) snapshot? Today, I share your contributions and invite your reaction.

My poll included one question (well, it was quick...):  What are the biggest interpersonal/group processes challenges that impact the work of nonprofit boards? I then offered a series of potential group issues one might encounter in a boardroom and asked you to rate each (on a four-point scale)  for its potential to disrupt board work.

Two charts illustrate slightly different views of the data. The first graphic offers a quick comparison, by average score, of each potential group challenge.

The second shares just a bit more detail about where those responses fell on the scale, from "little or no impact" to "overwhelming/debilitating challenge."

I also offered an "other" option, knowing that my chosen challenges represented only a smaller subset of potential group problems. I invited readers to share additional feedback and, most important, any issues I'd left off the original list. Following are highlights of responses participants offered:

When board members also have (or potentially have) professional relationships with each other that can hinder their actions.

Insufficient number of people with prior board experiences to serve as models for neophyte boards members.

Unclear roles; no strategic direction despite many changes in the industry; history of being a do-nothing board; untapped expertise of the board members; inadequate representation of younger generations with more experience with evolving technology

Insufficient understanding of the role of the board, and confusion between management and governance.

Fear of making difficult decisions, so the can gets kicked down the road. Also, ambiguous protocols for who makes final decisions and how, resulting in ambiguous or non-decision making. Also, the two boards I am thinking of are actually collaboratives of multiple organizations, so the context may be a little different. Still, one of the problems is that some people are at the table representing a specific entity or constituency, and they pull power plays and effectively hold decisions hostage by threatening to walk away if their interests and demands are not catered to.

Boards that are entwined through personal and professional relationships are a common problem in smaller communities. People often serve on multiple boards, are in service clubs together and use each others business services. It can make it very difficult to disagree or rock the boat too much.

Often, it seems like many board members either don't care or don't want to ruffle feathers. It's hard to tell but I think many don't want to ruffle feathers in terms of speaking to certain issues or disagreeing with the ED, president, or fellow members for that matter

Board members have current or potential business or professional relationships with each other. Makes them reluctant to challenge the other. I rate this a serious challenge, especially if that is a high composition of the board, which often happens in smaller geo areas.

Not enough volunteering to do work for the board outside of attending meetings is a significant challenge!

1. Loss of board institutional knowledge of board culture and processes (what positive changes have worked and are not carried forward) due to board member succession. 2. A Board Chair without the skill set to seek out, appreciate and respect opinions/perspectives different from his own. 3. Default to "group think" and not doing the more challenging generative work of boards.
Agenda not focused on key strategic issues. And/or: Lack of good prep and materials for our mtg

How does this fit your own board experiences? Where do these results differ? What challenges have you witnessed that we haven't covered, either in the original poll or the "other" responses? What questions should I be exploring, about the way boards interact, as the year progresses?

*  Responses shared represent a small sample of blog readers gathered over a brief time frame. They are presented here in the spirit of inviting conversation only and should not be used to generalize about all boards.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Quick poll: Biggest interpersonal/group challenges in the nonprofit boardroom

As I continue to research and renew my understanding of common group challenges in this year of 'process and practice,' I'm feeling the need to gather some reader feedback on what you're encountering in the nonprofit boardroom.

What are the interpersonal incidents that stand between you and effective governance? I've set up a quick poll to gauge the impact of some of the issues that I've encountered, either on my own or in conversation with other board members.

I'll acknowledge up front that the included scenarios represent only a tiny slice of what might take place in a board setting. As important as your ratings on those I've selected is your input, via the 'other' option on what I have missed.

Please take a moment to respond to this poll, either via the embedded version below or at this link. Please also pass along to fellow board members and others who would be willing to share their opinions and experiences. I'll report back with the findings in a future post.

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

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Engaging the introverted board member

What does it mean to be an introverted nonprofit board member? What does it mean to engage introverts in your governance work, in ways that give them the space they need to think, communicate and lead effectively?

I'm an introvert. You might be an introvert. Chances are good that at least a few of your fellow board members are introverts. What does that actually mean, particularly within the context of the work that boards do? In what ways is our work structured to facilitate introverts' needs? In what ways to we stifle them?

As an introvert, I took Susan Cain's stunning book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking, personally. It's one of those rare texts I've read that leave me asking, "Who are you, and how did you end up in my head/life?" I recognized myself in the descriptions and scenarios contained within. As I've explored the topic in greater depth, and re-read Cain's book, I also recognized some of the challenges I've faced in nonprofit board meetings (and some I've seen played out at others' boardroom tables).

Simply knowing there are introverts in the room doesn't help us understand the barriers erected in our boardroom practices, nor does it enlighten us on how to draw the best from our quieter board members. As a starting point for a productive conversation, I recommend Cain's Introvert's Manifesto, 16 points about quieter individuals. (Well, I really recommend reading the book. But this is a good start. So, too, is my Pinterest board on introversion.)

Some of those points are more germane to the work of boards than others. As I revisit her list and apply the salient points to my own understanding of boardroom dynamics, the following thoughts resonate:

(1) "There's a word for 'people who are in their heads too much:' thinkers." Oh, to have spending to much time thinking through big board decisions as a real, recurring issue. This is not to say boards never face the occasional "paralysis by analysis." But let's face it: more often than not, boards are pressed to make often major decisions without the time to fully explore the impacts of their actions.  Their time is limited. Occasionally, their attention span is limited (or at least we treat them as if that were the case). Giving your introverts the time they need to think and consider not only accommodates their need to do so,  it also draws upon one of their greater gifts to group process.

(2) "Our culture rightly admires risk-takers, but we need our "'heed-takers' more than ever." Boards desperately need a balance between the two: leaders who will stretch them beyond their comfort zones and leaders who recognize when those stretches risk breaking. We need to respect, and seek out, both in our boardroom deliberations. The kind of 'heed-taking' caution comes naturally to introverts.

(3) "Solitude is a catalyst for innovation." The earlier you provide our meeting materials, the better. The more you provide us with information options (e.g., resources that help us deepen our understanding of our mission) that we can explore independently, the greater the chance that we will come to board meetings prepared to introduce creative solutions and opportunities. Plan to devote large portions of meeting time exploring big, open questions. Give us those questions in advance (on the agenda itself), so that we can reflect and explore at our own pace and come to those discussions with ideas that have had time to percolate a bit.

(7) "Sometimes it helps to be a pretend-extrovert. There's always time to be quiet later."  Don't let us off the hook when the time comes to engage and act.  While introverts don't like to be put on the spot, and we may occasionally resist speaking up (especially if it means ruffling the proverbial feathers), we're all there to do a job: to govern. That means engaging, advocating and leading on behalf of our organization and its mission. Introverts should expect to step up and speak out, and to be held accountable for the outcomes of our collective actions.

(8) "But in the long run, staying true to your temperament is the key to finding work you love and work that matters." That said, we function best when we are allowed to contribute in ways that are authentic to who we are as individuals. That means giving us assignments that allow us to work alone (See Manifesto point 5) - to share our individual expertise with the ED or senior staff who would benefit from our knowledge, to research an issue independently and communicate the results with the group, to take responsibility for a project that we can handle on our own. Understand that we aren't chatty; but when we do speak, it will be worth the wait.

(9) "Everyone shines, given the right lighting. For some, it’s a Broadway spotlight, for others, a lamplit desk." I'm not sure why, but my thoughts immediately went to the varying ways in which board members can contribute to the fundraising process when I read this one. (Some are willing and able to make the ask, while others are more comfortable doing the research and assisting with the introductions that lead up to that ask.) It also can apply to our varying needs for recognition as volunteers. It's up to board leadership and the ED to understand individual members' preferences for visibility and recognition, and to tailor both requests and kudos in appropriate ways.

(10) "'Quiet leadership' is not an oxymoron." Do not mistake "talkative' for "leadership." Do not equate "strong opinions" for "destined to be our next board chairperson." Recognize that strength comes in many varieties, that the capacity to listen and formulate words carefully before speaking also represent a form of leadership that nonprofits require to succeed.

Have you read Cain's book? Do you identify as an introvert? Are you an extrovert trying to unravel the mysteries of your quieter counterparts? Are you part of a board that has managed to create space that accommodates varied member participation styles?  I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.