Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Lessons in vision and mission

What is the best way to launch a new leadership role? Is there a “right way” to align your vision of the future with the organization's? In the nonprofit setting, is it really your vision?

I recently witnessed an unfortunate failure to align a new leader’s vision of the future with that of internal stakeholders who were already on board and actively working toward what they saw as the organization’s purpose in the community.

While the related events offered rich – if extremely difficult – lessons about leadership succession and group dynamics, I couldn’t help honing in on the vision- and mission-related aspects of what unfolded. The intersections and “lessons learned” from that case have clear applicability to the nonprofit setting.

Let me start by stating the obvious: there is no one, universal, perfect way to launch a new leadership role and the relationships that will facilitate or challenge its success. There is no one scenario facing all new executives; the challenges and opportunities are as varied as the number of organizations themselves. That said, I believe that some of the lessons I took away from this event may be of value (and, hopefully, obvious) to anyone beginning a new nonprofit leadership commitment.

One, listen.  Your time to communicate, align, and advance your vision of the future will come. But don't start with a megaphone. Start with your ears. In the early days, people want reassurance that they share a common direction with their new leader and that their strengths and motivations will be valued as they move forward.

Ask stakeholders about their experiences, their motivations, their understandings of the organization's purpose. Then listen. Hear what they are saying. Seek understanding of the foundation upon which they are working, so you'll have a sense of where you're already aligned and where differences exist. Don't react immediately to those (perceived) differences. Rash decisions hurt, in sometimes devastating ways.

Two, understand that, in the end, your vision is not the vision - especially in a nonprofit setting. No, the vision of a better future ultimately belongs to the community (however your define "community"). Mobilizing all of the organization's resources in service to a better future for your community is your reason for being.

If you were hired, well, someone sees a good, basic fit - or a solid reason why a reboot is necessary. In an executive's ideal world, alignment is perfect and easy to accomplish. That's seldom how "real life" works. It's your job to work toward that perfect fit. But in the end, it's not "your" vision and mission. They belong to the organization and the community it serves.

Three, even if it's clear that a complete reboot is necessary, don't come charging in, demanding "my way or the highway." You will fail with such a scorched-earth approach to change. You can't do it alone. Your organization cannot do it alone. You cannot leave a trail of metaphorical bodies on entry without heavy and potentially lasting damage.

Always begin from a place of respect: Respect people's integrity, commitment, skills and knowledge. Communicate that respect, even/especially as you communicate the need to channel those gifts and commitments in new directions. If you convey, directly or indirectly, a lack of respect for their basic humanity and their contributions, you will lose them, their connections, expertise - and likely far more.

Four, recognize the critical importance of stakeholder ownership. If employees and other stakeholders can see common ground, if they can see a clear path for them to contribute to the future (even if there is a shift in direction), if you engage them in developing and owning that vision, they will help you succeed.

Most of us will not follow just 'cause. We need to see how the vision being promoted fits our own understanding of the organization's purpose. We need to see that we have a role in that vision. Resistance to change seldom is the problem itself. It's resistance to change for change's sake.

How does it fit?
How will it make things better, especially for those we serve?
How can I contribute effectively to this forward motion?
How will we know we're there - or moving there?
What does "success" look like?

How can we contribute to shaping this vision of the future? How can we own that vision? It's "Human Nature 101," folks.

Finally, keep it in perspective. Unless you're the founder, you're not the first to have a vision of the future for the organization. You probably won't be the last. You will succeed, and the organization will succeed, when you can create a common vision that benefits your community in the end when you spend your early days (and most of your time there) building that vision together.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

No fair! Social loafing in the boardroom

Photo purchased from Bigstock Photo

Have you ever served on a board with that one person who never seems to follow through on anything? Who can't be counted on to assume any real responsibility? Whose only purpose seems to be keeping a seat warm - literally?

Is social loafing an unspoken, accepted practice in your nonprofit boardroom?

Social loafing occurs when a member steps back and gives less than his or her best effort in a group. One common assumption driving this phenomenon: someone in the group will make sure it gets done, even if I don't. The group is responsible, after all. The group will take care of it. My own pressure to perform is reduced - or at least I think and act as if that were true.

In some highly dysfunctional boards, there may be a sense of impotence or lack of commitment the work to be done. Frankly, who cares? If it won't make a difference amidst the chaos, why should I make this a personal priority? Maybe we watch our fellow members shirk their own responsibilities and feel less motivated ourselves. So we loaf.

One of the better descriptions of social loafing, one that should make sense for those of us serving on nonprofit boards, is a synopsis of a Human Relations article, "A Model of Social Loafing in Real Work Groups." See of some if these additional potential factors ring a bell:

  • Perceived lack of influence over task outcomes - doesn't matter what I do (or don't do). My individual effort doesn't matter in the end.
  • Unmotivating task - I don't care if I complete this task; it bores me and doesn't connect to anything that matters to me.
  • Perceived relative task ability - I'm pretty sure I'll fail. I'm in way over my head on this one. What's worse, I'm pretty sure my fellow group members would do a better job.
  • Perceived lack of potential for evaluation of one's contribution - I won't be held accountable, so it doesn't matter.

That last bullet point is particularly important. Social loafing frequently comes down to a lack of accountability - official accountability via regular individual and group-level assessment, and informal accountability, via a culture that upholds commitment and engagement as foundational group values. If we know our effort (or lack thereof) will be noticed, if we feel responsible for our role in the collective success of the board, the vast majority of us will step up and follow through on our responsibilities.  In a volunteer leadership role, like board service, we want our effort to make a difference.

Because social loafing may emerge from different scenarios, offering one magic solution is risky to impossible. But in general, I do have a handful of recommendations for reducing the risk that our board members will fall into this trap.

  • Build the foundation for board service on active participation and leadership. Set the bar high and articulate clearly what is expected from the recruitment process forward.
  • Define clear markers for member success and take steps to verify that members understand and accept the responsibility given to them.  Be explicit in securing agreement, verifying that members understand what is being asked of them.
  • Offer regular check-ins and opportunities to not only remind members of their responsibilities but catch and address issues before they become full-fledged obstacles.
  • Take steps to ensure that members have a reasonable chance of success. Stretches are great, even essential when reaching for grand visions of the future. But they must be realistic stretches. Otherwise, you - and they - know that you are setting them up to fail.
  • As much as possible, fit tasks to member expertise and interests. Start them from a foundation of strength and motivation.
  • Provide whatever additional support is needed for members to succeed at the tasks they're assigned. They need the tools, information and resources to have a reasonable chance of accomplishing what they are expected to do.
  • Share the work and the leadership responsibility broadly. Reinforce the message that the board's ultimate success relies on all members willingly assuming their share of the work. (Note: This does require that some of us give up our martyr status, where we take on more than our share of the work because "it'll never get done if I don't do it." It will, because our fellow board members understand and accept their equal leadership responsibility. We have to give them a chance, though.)
  • Institutionalize goal-driven assessment processes for individual members and the board as a whole. Use those processes as formal opportunities to stop, evaluate, and make any necessary adjustments in a timely manner. Use them, too, to set and reinforce the high leadership bar that board members really want (vs. solely as a stick with which to punish "loafers").

The bottom line:
Build, reinforce and celebrate a culture where board members are not only expected to contribute and lead, but where they receive the support and acknowledgment they deserve when they actually do.

Build a culture where loafing is not only unacceptable but unthinkable.

    Sunday, November 3, 2013

    The right kind of board conflict

    Conflict in the nonprofit boardroom is never okay. Or is it?

    Board members volunteer their time, expertise and wisdom. The best come willingly, in the spirit of contributing something important and making a difference. In return, we - board leaders and senior staff - attempt to create a stimulating and collegial experience for everyone involved. The last thing anyone involved in this important work wants is a toxic, contentious environment.

    Often, that translates into avoidance of conflict at all costs. We tap dance around the tough questions, resist recruiting anyone too different from us, and isolate the 'troublemakers.'

    But is that necessarily wise?

    Recently, I read a Harvard Business Review blog post that reminded me that conflict itself is neither good nor bad. The type of conflict - and how we handle it - is the critical difference. In that post, "Good Conflict Makes a Good Board," author Solange Charas describes two types of conflict: 

    Cognitive conflict "is task-oriented, with a focus on how to get things done to achieve optimal results."

    On the flip side is affective conflict, which "is emotionally oriented and focused on personal differences or shortcomings between people."

    Facilitated well, the former invites divergent thinking and critical analysis. Cognitive conflict requires different perspectives and experiences, broadening our thinking and anticipating more contingencies that could affect how the resulting decisions unfold once they are made. We want this kind of conflict in our boardrooms. In fact, we should be building in processes and expectations that make these kinds of robust exchanges part of the deliberation process. We also should be recruiting members who bring different experiences and frames of thinking that fuel cognitive conflict.

    What's not productive in the boardroom is the latter type, affective conflict. Allowing interpersonal 'stuff' to derail discussions, bringing conflict unrelated to this board or the nonprofit organization it's governing into the deliberations - affective conflict, at best, contributes nothing to the process and, at worst (and most frequently), erects obstacles to the work board members are called to do.

    Affective conflict can be tricky to handle for many reasons. I believe it's even more problematic in a nonprofit boardroom or other settings involving volunteers. Why? Because it involves people who are there voluntarily - giving that precious time and talent - and doing so in the hope that it will somehow make a difference to others. We want to feel good about that work. We want it to be fulfilling, to have impact, and to maybe even be fun. We do not want to spend those precious hours fighting or feeling like they have been wasted by meaningless battles that have nothing to do with the job at hand.

    So how do we minimize - or even eliminate - affective conflict in our boardrooms? I have no magic solution, but I do have at least a couple of suggestions.

    One, we need to create and nurture a culture of collegiality and mission focus. "Culture" itself can be hard to see, but we can take steps toward building that environment. For example, consider setting ground rules about how board members will interact and how the group will address problems that arise. Use this process, not as a way to end up with a bunch of rules to then set aside when done, but to foster frank conversations about expectations and mission-focused goals for the board's work.
    Regularly revisit those rules, as reminders about how we commit to engaging as organizational leaders. Focus not only on the "thou shalt nots," but on the kinds of interactions that encourage the productive, mission-focused deliberations that facilitate governance.

    Two, we need leadership (board leadership, not ED. It's not his/her job...) willing to rein in unproductive interactions of all kinds, including affective conflict. It's not easy. It's not fun. But it's part of the job of leading our governing bodies. In the (hopefully) rare event that this type of interpersonal conflict interferes with board business and collegiality. If you're a board leader, are you prepared - and willing - to intervene in a timely manner?

    What kinds of conflict do you allow in your boardroom interactions? What do you do to foster the creative stimulation that comes with cognitive conflict? How do you reduce the risk of affective conflict seeping into the boardroom?