Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Wednesday Wisdom: Dual focus

I've had this one posted on my office wall so long that I no longer remember when or where Menachem made this comment. While the details have escaped me, the power of the lesson contained within has not.

We can apply his counsel to a variety of settings, including the nonprofit boardroom. Just as we need a diverse range of voices and perspectives in the room, we also need people who can keep us focused on the macro-level, broader issues and on the micro-level, application challenges. Maintaining that balance helps boards avoid getting stuck in one of two unproductive traps - paralyzed by the vastness of the vision we're called to advance or so mired in the details that we forget the leadership responsibilities we've accepted.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Wednesday Wisdom: Govern, don't manage

Period. End of story. Roll up the carpet and call it a day. Boards are here to govern, not manage.

I chose this quote for its evergreen nature, and for its "current events" applicability (let's just say it it always seems to hit a little too close to home).

Stating the obvious is the title of the publication containing Kenneth Dayton's quote, Governance is Governance.  We may occasionally be called to advise on management functions. We may sometimes have to manage aspects of the work, especially in a nonprofit's early days when there may literally be no one else to complete those essential tasks.

But in the end, our ultimate responsibility as board members is to govern - to guard and advance the vision and mission of our organizations. If we don't govern, it doesn't happen. Sadly, many of us need Dayton's reminder to not let that core reason for being get lost in the day-to-day shuffle.

Are you governing, or are you managing?

Monday, July 22, 2013

Book review: You & Your Nonprofit Board

Christmas in July? That's what it felt like earlier this month, when two new books on nonprofit governance arrived on my doorstep. As I read both, it became clear that each title has something unique to contribute to the conversation about what it takes to govern effectively.

In the next two (or more) posts, I'd like to share highlights from each and suggest ways to apply to a board setting.  Today, I'll introduce  you to a new volume edited by Terrie Temkin, You and Your Nonprofit Board: Advice and Practical Tips from the Field's Top Practitioners, Researchers, and Provocateurs. *

I read this one with great pleasure and anticipation for two reasons. One, I know and am a fan of nearly half of the authors who contributed chapters. Two, it's explicitly written for board leaders, members, and the executives who support them.

The opportunity, if not for direct applicability, the potential for rich discussions about different ways of governing is huge with this book.  In this book, you have direct access to some of the finest, most creative minds and their innovative approaches to shaping boardroom culture and practices.  Their wisdom is shared in an accessible, practitioner-friendly format.

Ideally, each board member would receive a copy of this book, which could then be used as a focal point for group exploration and reflection on ways to enhance performance. Since that may not be financially feasible for every board, buying one agency copy, then sharing with members, is a realistic option. I'd take it a step further, though (as I've done with other board books),  and do so with an assignment: Ask a member to review one of the chapters that address a current board challenge, research the author's related work in greater depth, and present a brief learning experience to the group.

Among the helpful features included within the text are these pull-out sections:
  • Practical tips
  • Definitions
  • Food for thought
  • Example and 
  • Watch out!
Each enhances the value and applicability of the chapter in which it is located.

While impossible to spotlight all of the sections that struck a chord, I will highlight a representative sample, to give you an idea of what's in store for you as a reader.

Choice, Future, and Communities: The True Role of the Board and Governance (Steven Bowman). This chapter opens the book and centers on a quote by Steven that I shared earlier this summer. In this article, Bowman expands upon the implications for each component of that definition of governance. In the process, he brings it to life in practical ways that resonate with board members.

Effective Board Decision Making (Jane Garthson). Ah, the art of decision making. The importance of decision making. The importance of having all that we need - context, (appropriate) detail, timeliness - of decision making. Jane offers a series of questions to guide us in that process. She also offers a series of fantastic "up-front" and "analysis" questions to help to ensure that that process is a thorough, thoughtful one.

You're Not the Boss of Me: The Board Chair and CEO Relationship (Gayle Gifford). Few people understand the importance of that core leadership relationship, and what it takes to nurture it to the full benefit of the board and agency, better than Gayle. This chapter reminds me of that. It also reinforces the message that the board chair role can, and should be, a more proactive one. Effective board chairs lead. This "food for thought" insert was a convicting one: "Imagine if, instead of being on the phone daily with the CEO, the chair spent a few moments each day mentoring or engaging with a fellow board member" (p. 154).

Boards as Bridges (Brent Never). This marvelous chapter introduces two lenses for viewing the board's boundary-spanning role. The "representative" view frames that responsibility as a networking function: creating and sustaining connections to networks of stakeholders. The "resource" view frames those connections in terms of access to needed resources.

Beyond Bylaws: Sharpening Expectations to Tap the Full Potential of Your Board (Bill Musick). I've already "stolen" the best part of this chapter to use with boards down the road. Rather than focusing on the "thou shalts" and "thou shalt nots," he turns the conversation around to a discussion of "envisioning 'the board we want to be.'" The drivers of this process are a series of questions Musick poses, designed to focus attention on setting high the high bar I've been calling for here - and, in the process, inspiring members to reach for that full potential.

Order one copy. Order 20. But order this marvelous new resource as an investment in your board's capacity.

* I try to remain agnostic when providing links to recommend, preferring to send you to publisher sites when possible. You should be able to order "You and Your Nonprofit Board" from your favorite bookseller, whatever that resource may be.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Wednesday Wisdom: Effective group spirit

We gather around the boardroom table - or the teleconference connection - on a regular basis to conduct business. We receive and discuss a common agenda and remain jointly accountable for the results. We go through the motions daily, but are we driven by an "effective group spirit?" What difference does it make in our governance if we do? What are we missing if the answer is no?

Revisiting Houle's marvelous book this week was a multi-layered treat. The one unrelated to this post: He's an adult education icon, writing about my other passionate topic, boards. (Discovering this book was both a shock and a delight years ago.) The related reason: It's filled with gems like this quote, and practical advice about building board capacity and supporting our governing bodies. 

While I probably need to spend some time here sharing more wisdom from Houle's book, this particular quote begged for the spotlight today. It attends to the group dynamics issues that I've been writing about this year, and it reminds us that governance is more than the bottom-line tasks.

Houle describes the elements necessary to fostering this collegial environment:

"Such a spirit is a result of many causes, among which some of the most important are a strong belief in the mission and the program; a sense of progress in accomplishing goals; a conviction of the worth and importance of the board itself, particularly in the eyes of the community; and a good personal relationship and interaction among the members. Any board that has all four is fortunate; it also is rare."  (p. 120)

How does your board stack up?

Monday, July 15, 2013

Dispositions of nonprofit governance

What does it really take to govern a nonprofit? What are the essential qualities - beyond specific skills - that should be required of every board member?

I've been thinking about that a lot over the past year, as I immerse myself in the larger questions of nonprofit governance and as I help boards identify their own recruitment needs. Specific skills usually come to mind first when I lead boards through that process. They know they need legal expertise or someone who can help them decipher the profit and loss sheets.

But at least as important, if not more so, are what my friend, Hildy Gottlieb, would describe as the "must have" recruitment criteria: those qualities that are the bottom line for everyone in the room. Sometimes, there is a mission-specific skill or knowledge base that makes the list. Usually though, those "musts" are what I describe as dispositions: personal qualities that form the foundation for the wise deliberations and decisions expected of community leaders and stewards.

So what would I include on my list of essential board dispositions? This remains a work in progress, and my version may not look exactly like yours. But I offer it today in the spirit of sparking conversation about what we must expect of everyone who serves in our boardrooms.

Honesty. I hope the reason for this one is so obvious it's a no-brainer. But I also offer it - and offer it first - to illustrate the critical importance of the "must have" recruitment criteria. I actually had this conversation recently with a board working through its own list of needs. The question of how non-negotiable the "musts" should be arose: what happens if a prospect is good on most but not all of the criteria we identify? The underlying concern seemed to lie in the common assumption that the board can't be too picky - just finding individuals with any interest is tough enough. "Honesty" was on their list, and I asked them,  "So what if that person is fantastic on everything here except honesty? Is that okay, to have a board member who struggles with the truth?" I posed the same question about a couple of the other qualities on their "must" list. It quickly became clear that "must" really does mean "must."

Intellectually curious. More than book smart (though a board member could be guilty of worse...), the intellectually curious board member is broadly knowledgeable and perpetually asking questions. Easy answers to easy, superficial questions aren't enough. The curious board member is not afraid to step outside of his or her comfort zone and is willing to explore the unfamiliar on the way to identifying the best possible response for the organization and those it serves. That member asks the compelling questions that others may not know to ask (or may hesitate to ask).

Practical wisdom. Members should have life experiences to understand the world around them and capacity to apply that wisdom appropriately when deliberating issues before the board.

Open-minded.  Board members - especially those governing human service organizations, need to be able to consider a range of perspectives and experiences, many of which will be quite unlike their own. If they have signed on to uphold and advance the mission, they must avoid judgmental attitudes and behaviors that shut down their capacity to grasp the complexities of the work and the context in which it is conducted.

Discretion. The typical board member has access to often sensitive information when debating issues brought before the larger body. Knowing when to speak and when not to do so, understanding the need to speak publicly with one voice once a decision has been made, is a board must.

Strong listening skills. It's hard to take in, analyze and transform the full breadth of perspectives and information required to govern effectively if we're perpetually pushing our own agendas on the rest of the board - or practicing what we will say next to make our case. The capacity to listen and to reflect on what is being shared is essential to effective nonprofit leadership.

Whatever your board chooses to include on its list of essential qualities, it needs to frame and reinforce that foundation with current and potential members. Yes, our board members are human. Yes, we all will occasionally stumble. But without that bar, members lack a common understanding of what is expected of them and the board lacks the core qualities required to govern fully and effectively.

What are your essential board member dispositions?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Wednesday Wisdom: Exemplary leaders

What might be possible if our boards accepted this conceptualization of exemplary leadership? What would their work look like? On what would their agendas focus? What would their individual roles be? What types of individuals would we need to recruit to ensure that they are ready and able to reach for this higher purpose?

What's stopping them from leading this way today?