Sunday, September 29, 2013

Antecedents to board member participation: Insights from governance research

What factors best facilitate active board member engagement in the core function of governance?

Ground-breaking research by governance scholar Will Brown has uncovered four elements, part of a larger model of member participation, that lay the foundation for effective participation in board discussion and decision making. Dr. Brown discussed those essential factors during an Alliance for Nonprofit Management Governance Affinity Group "research to practice" webinar last week.

While Will covered his larger engagement model during the session, the four antecedents took the spotlight. It's where I'm choosing to focus this post, not only because they're the foundation for everything else, but also because this is what I believe to be the biggest "aha" of this work.

"The whole self being ready to participate..." 

That simple descriptor took my breath away. In a research environment where structures, responsibilities, and demographics dominate, Will's in-a-nutshell description of the antecedents' role in board member engagement stands out. It reminds us that board members are human beings, first and foremost. We can't just plop them into a board seat and expect them to perform. They have needs and motivations - antecedents to engagement - that we must address to support effective governance.

So what are those factors that contribute to the "whole self" readiness to govern that emerged in Will's research?

  • Perceived ability
  • Task ownership
  • Values congruence
  • Trust and safety

Perceived ability.  How confident is each member in his/her ability to live up to the board's responsibilities? Why would he/she bother if the likelihood of failure is high? Members don't want to feel that their time will be wasted, or that they will be set up for failure. They need to feel confident that they can live up to expectations and make a difference in their service.

Brown offered at least three ways to build board member confidence: breaking big responsibilities into smaller, manageable steps; recruiting members with expertise, skills, and perspectives that are essential to the board's work; and providing members with the right set of tools and support to govern.

Task ownership. Board members must understand what is expected of them before they accept the job and throughout their term of service. But as important as it is to clarify expectations up front, Brown says, it is not enough. Board members must understand their purpose and see how that connects to their individual motivations to serve. They need to recognize discussion and deliberation as a core responsibility of governance. They need to own that responsibility and commit to it.

Values congruence. Members need to tie board tasks to their personal priorities, according to Brown. If we've recruited individuals whose personal values fit organizational values, making those connections "brings energy to the roles and functions" of board work. Are they committed to your mission? Do their values match yours? When the fit is right, and when we can help board members articulate that fit, commitment to the work grows.

Trust and safety. Board members need a sense of interpersonal trust, confidence that the boardroom is a safe space to interact without negative consequences. They need to know that this is a safe place for taking a moderate level of risk. This is not a process that can be hurried, Brown says. It takes time - and authentic interaction - for this antecedent to emerge.

It would be easy to point to these antecedents as a lovely ideal to which all boards should begin working - and that would be a mistake. They really are the bottom line - borne out in Will's research - for engaging the community leaders we recruit in the work to which they are called. It we want them to succeed, if we expect them to succeed, we owe them this much.

What I appreciated about the insights shared in the webinar - and about Will Brown's work generally - is the attention given to the human side of nonprofit governance. Too often, governance research discounts (or ignores altogether) the fact that what drives the work is not the perfect job description or check marks ticking off demographic variables on a recruitment matrix. It's the people who serve.

Will discusses his larger model in the new book that he co-edited with Chris Cornforth, Nonprofit governance: Innovative perspectives and approaches I encourage readers to pick up a copy and read Dr. Brown's chapter (and the rest of the book) to better understand the human element of board work.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Governance as Leadership: My latest attempt to articulate a revolutionary board model


As Chait, Ryan and Taylor's Governance as Leadership model continues to form the foundation for all of my work and thought on nonprofit boards, I'm finding new ways to articulate the essential messages of that model as I interpret them.

I created this video for another purpose, but I also anticipate that readers here may find parts (or, hopefully, all) of it of value. I'd love to have your feedback on the content, as having opportunities to talk through these elements with others expands my own understanding and my capacity to share effectively with others.

A qualifier before you watch: I'm not the family broadcaster. I tend to do best with screencasts like this if I allow myself to simply talk through what I'm thinking, versus as if I were giving a formal presentation. The result tends to be slightly less polished, but more authentic representation of my understanding of the content being shared. In this more personal setting, I trust that that will be okay.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Wisdom Wednesday: Thinking & becoming

Years ago, at a time when I felt desperately stuck in what seemed like an impossible situation, I popped a tape from an Earl Nightingale audio book into the cassette player on my desk. As was my routine, I listened with one ear while I worked, letting the vast majority of his wisdom pass me by.

Except for this sentence: "We become what we think about."

I have no idea what prompted me to catch this particular statement, amidst all that I had ignored to that point. I have no idea why such a simple idea resonated as deeply as it did that day, and in the decades since. But it connected to what I desperately needed at that point in my life. It reminded me that we have the power to shape our own journey and, to a large extent, our ultimate impact on the world.  It, frankly, changed my life. It continues to shape virtually everything I do.

Recently, as I found myself needing a brief "Nightingale" reminder, I couldn't help thinking that this wisdom applies as well to our boards and where they spend their time and energy. I was developing a new talk on Governance as Leadership,  preparing to make my best case for devoting more space for generative thinking, and for embedding that work in our governance routines.

I asked myself: How are we helping our boards become generative governing bodies?

Where are we directing our boards' focus? Are we asking them to devote, not just equal time, but the best of their time on future-focused, high-impact questions and deliberations?

Are they reading and reflecting on the best possible pool of resources that inform their thinking about their work and our mission areas? Are their meetings centered on those generative and strategic questions that move us forward, into a future that we are designing, rather than letting it happen to us?

Are we supporting them in their leadership development? Are we respecting their wisdom and their capacity to build a powerful vision of the future around which we all can rally?

Perhaps most important to this topic: Do we encourage them to set a high bar for themselves and support their individual and collaborative efforts to reach it?

Are our boards thinking about the future and things that matter? If not, what are we going to do - today - to change that?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Wisdom Wednesday: Leaders as learners

Given the name of this blog, and my adult education background, it shouldn't be a surprise that this quote caught my eye. It's as true in nonprofit governance as anywhere: If we want to make an impact, we cannot rely on the same old (and often dysfunctional) ways of thinking and acting. We need leaders who are not only open to new ideas and information but who are willing to actively seek them out.

It is not "too much to ask of volunteers." As I wrote elsewhere, intellectual curiosity should be a bottom-line criterion of all board members - especially our leaders. They can't be content with the status quo. Ideally, they are modeling lifelong learning that fuels generative governance.

(Quote comes from Kouzes and Posner's e-book, "Great Leadership Creates Great Workplaces.")

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Wisdom Wednesday: Farsighted leaders

Farsightedness is one of the six characteristics of acknowledged leaders that author Erika Andersen spotlights in her remarkable book, Leading So People Will Follow. For nonprofit boards, the need for future-oriented leaders is as high as the special challenges they routinely face.

It's easy to treat "the future" as an abstract dream to set aside until tomorrow when the harsh realities of today keep pounding on the board's door. Obviously, we can't afford to ignore the here and now - especially when doing so means there's no "tomorrow" to address.

But the future is the realm of our governing bodies. We define it. We advance it. We protect it with everything we do. Our board leaders must hold that as their highest responsibility. They must find a balance, that gives today's challenges their appropriate focus but not at the expense of the future they are charged with enacting.

Board leaders must focus the group's ultimate attention on envisioning and shaping the future. They must find compelling ways to communicate that future, that resonate with individual members' interests. They must find inviting ways to share that vision with those who have not yet joined the journey.

Board leader, how are you guiding the group's work to fulfill your collective responsibility for the future of your nonprofit? Board member, how are you holding your leadership accountable for future-oriented work? How are you, as a community leader, demonstrating farsightedness in service to your mission?