Sunday, March 3, 2013

Group process social lit review: Inside the Boardroom

This post is part of a new occasional series spotlighting the key books and other resources that are influencing my thinking on the group dynamics that impact what happens in the nonprofit boardroom. It is part of my commitment to exploring group process and practice in 2013.

It all started with this book.

I had two reasons for purchasing Richard Leblanc and James Gillies' book Inside the Boardroom: How Boards Really Work and the Coming Revolution in Corporate Governance. First, Richard is an acquaintance and this was a chance to learn more about his work. Second, this title offered an excellent opportunity to expand my limited understanding of corporate governance.

I read the first few chapters, happily absorbing information and comparing the corporate and nonprofit environments. Then things changed when I got to chapter 6. The tone and topic of that chapter (titled "The Effective Board: Function Not Form") resonated and surprised for the exactly the same reason: the invitation to look beyond the usual focus on structure and into what actually takes place in the boardroom. It resonated because my own research explored questions at the boardroom level. It surprised because, well, that's just not where most research - at least nonprofit  governance - tends to focus.

In chapter 6, Dr. Leblanc did more than invite us to consider viewing board work through a different lens. He also provided a framework for doing that, a new Board Effectiveness Model built on three elements:

  • Structure
  • Processes and 
  • Member competencies

Yes, how we structure our work is important. But that's not the whole story. Just as critical are the processes (how we interact with, and build off of, each other) and the competencies we bring as individual members. As my wise friend Richard says, it's about "group chemistry."

Then came chapter 7.  My focus shifted from fellow governance researcher to board member as I read this quote (p. 156):

A board is not some amorphous entity that functions independently of its members. It is a group of people who have individual prejudices and views, behavioural patterns and cultural backgrounds. Whether a board works well and makes good decisions, or is dysfunctional and makes poor ones, depends largely on the manner in which board members work together.

I have a master's degree in organizational communication and decades of experience working in groups. This is basic, common sense. Yet having someone articulate it in this context sparked a personal "aha" moment.

Chapter 7 (which Richard has generously made available to readers - click here to download and read) lays out a framework for describing individual membership characteristics that contribute to, or inhibit, board effectiveness. Dr. Leblanc first identifies three individual member effectiveness factors (p. 158):

  • Independence of mind
  • Specific competencies
  • Behavioral characteristics

How do these three criteria change how we think about the kinds of board members we need to govern well? How do they impact how we define our board's recruitment needs and processes?

Richard then introduces three behavioral characteristics of directors (pp. 162-163):

  • Persuasive/non-persuasive
  • Dissent/consensus
  • Individual/collective

Where one falls on each continuum helps to define which of Dr. Leblanc's 10 director types - five functional and five dysfunctional - fits one's role in the boardroom.

The functional:

  • Change agent
  • Consensus-builder
  • Challenger
  • Counsellor
  • Conductor-chair *

The dysfunctional:

  • Controller
  • Conformist
  • Critic
  • Cheerleader
  • Caretaker-chair *

(See the illustrations on pp. 166 and 167 for a visual representation of how they relate to each other and the three continua described above.)

Dr. Leblanc has shared an additional gift, Chapter 8, with us. In this chapter, Richard describes each of the director types in greater detail and offers a set of questions and a set of sample "directors' views about, and actions, of..." for each director type. These tools provide perfect prompts for identifying the personalities already in the boardroom. I recognized board members with whom I've served, board members I've encountered in various training and consultation settings and - yes - even myself in the descriptions.

The typology also gives us a new way of thinking about board diversity needs - a different way of thinking about the kinds of voices and perspectives needed for robust and healthy board deliberations (and, of course, those to avoid in that same quest). Do we have change agents who will push us to reach further and higher in healthy ways? Do we have consensus builders who can find the linkages between diverging perspectives and find solutions acceptable to all? Do we have counsellors who can reach across boundaries and make connections inside and outside of the boardroom? How about challengers who will question and not let us take the quick and easy option? 

Chapter 9 makes Inside the Boardroom a must read/must purchase. In it, the author describes two types of board chairs - the functional conductor-chair and its dysfunctional counterpart, the caretaker-chair - in deep detail. Boards require the former to lead them toward effectiveness. If the chair is the latter, a caretaker, the board risks floundering under leadership that errs on either side of over- or  under-controlling. Equipped with greater awareness of the personal characteristics best able to lead us to an effective governance experience, we will make wiser choices when selecting our next board leader.

There is so much to appreciate about this marvelous resource. First, Leblanc's Model of Board Effectiveness (p. 139) and 10 director types are specific, research-informed resources that will be valuable additions to our governance toolboxes. We can use the model to think more expansively about how to enhance our board's performance. The 10 director types give us a framework for identifying and discussing the types of behaviors that foster healthy boardroom activity and new behavioral targets when recruiting new members.

Second, it opens the door to the broader conversation that we need to be having, about about how human nature and the 'stuff' that we haul into the boardroom with us impacts what we create there.

I drew personal value at both levels in my reading. I invite you to read the two chapters that the author has shared with us - and ultimately purchase the book - and join me in conversation about what is shared there.

What questions does this work answer for you? What questions does it introduce? How can we apply Richard's work to reshape the way we govern?

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