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.


Nancy Iannone said...

No real surprises in the responses. Those of us who have worked with and for boards have seen many of these dynamics over the years.

What the survey did do for me,was reinforce the need for effective recruitment,training and support of boards. How often do organizations unwittingly set boards up for these kinds of dynamics?

You've written so much here about the potential for healthy,creative, rewarding governance. What would it take for that to be the norm?

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Whew. Good question, Nancy. As always. :)

There are so many ways to respond to it, focusing on so many levels. The two that are resonating most for me at the moment:

(1) Awareness within the sector: having access to resources addressing plain, old interpersonal communication and group dynamics - and the courage to do so. Related to that would be creating board-specific resources that introduce those concepts in context.

(2) Practice-focused research on board dynamics by nonprofit scholars. Related to that, of course, is a second step: translating that research into formats that are useful to those in the field.

Steven Frisch said...

I am the ED of a mid-sized nonprofit organization who is quite happy with my board of directors. But my friends tend to be other nonprofit ED's and at least two of them are experiencing what they perceive to be too much board involvement in operational decisions. I have always believed the role of a good board is 1) strategic leadership, 2) financial oversight, 3) communications and networking, 4) fundraising, and 5) mentorship and sharing experience.

I have pretty clear protocols approved by my board proscribing direct board/staff discussion of operational issues other than through 1) a grievance policy, 2) an annual 360 degree review of management, 3) pre-approved discussion offering board advise on programmatic implementation.

What is your view of the proper level of board involvement in operational decisions?

Debra Beck, EdD said...

It's definitely a challenge for many boards, Steven. Many reasons, including:

- It's familiar territory, resembling what they do in their work lives
- "Oversight" is a common frame for defining governance in the sector: it's "what boards are supposed to do." The line between legitimate oversight responsibilities and micromanagement is a paper-thin one.
- Lack of clarity about what governance really DOES involve (a sectorwide problem)

It all begins with frank and open conversations between board and ED. It continues with the kinds of protocols that you describe having in your organization. And it requires individual and board-level accountability for what has been defined as their governance responsibilities.

Pretty much everything I write and share here reinforces all of this. You might point them here, frankly. :) This post in particular might be a good starting point: http://www.boardlearning.org/2013/12/boards-101-few-essential-resources.html

You also might them to Governance as Leadership as a model that offers a more fulfilling and appropriate way of defining board work. The first link offered in the post above takes you to an overview of that model.

In my experience, board members who overstep usually do so from a good place - they want to do the best they can for the organization and their community - and from a place of not knowing any better.