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.


Vere Nekoninda said...

I don't entirely agree with point 2, painting extroverts as risk takers, in contrast to introverts. Suppose a leader proposes a bold plan. She may be a risk taker. How about the four extrovert board members, who quickly say, "Great idea", "Let's do it", "Excellent", "We should get moving on this"? Have they risked anything at all? If they later notice some difficulties with the plan, will they risk publicly changing their stance and/or disagreeing with the leader? How likely are they to look for possible problems, after declaring their support for the idea?

The introvert is less likely to jump on a band wagon. More likely to ponder, before reaching a conclusion. If the introvert chooses to voice a contrasting opinion, is this not significant risk taking? I think so. The introvert in this scenario risks both censure and penalty for going against the leader and the majority. If she is counseling a more prudent course, she risks being labeled as timid, a killjoy, lacking vision, etc. To speak up in these conditions is courageous.

Ardrala said...

I agree that "risk taker" describes both introvert and extrovert. It may be the contemplative introvert who says, "The proposals so far don't go far enough. We need to do more."

Debra Beck, EdD said...

My apology for the delayed response to your comments, Ardrala and Vere. I've had some periodic (and frustrating) issues with my notifications tool.

Your points are well taken, Vere. I also would agree with Ardrala - and could have done a better job of articulating it. That moment to step back and evaluate before accepting that risk is important. Still an opportunity for risk taking, you're right.