Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Building nonprofit board learning environments: A few foundational questions

What questions will best drive inquiry that will lead to new thinking about nonprofit board development? What do I need to be asking - of myself and others - to successfully create a vision of environments for board learning and leadership? 

As I commit to the theme chosen for this blog in 2015, I move forward with a few questions driving my focus and thinking. Some have been burning for years. Others are emerging as I explore the role of personal learning environments and performance support in adult learning. Together, they offer an exciting base that I hope will inform thinking, spark conversation and - ideally - transform board development practice.

Today, I share some of the most compelling questions as I prepare for what comes next.

  • What do board members really need to know, do, apply, etc., to govern effectively?
  • What capacities do our board chairpersons and committee chairpersons need to lead effectively?
  • What ongoing learning needs do new members have as they move toward full participation?
  • What are some of the most common learning and information needs that emerge while engaged in the work of governance (i.e., learning in a time of need)?
  • How can we make that information as accessible - and close to the work - as possible?
  • How do our board members define their learning needs? When do they tend to identify them as learning needs?
  • What motivates board members to seek out information/support for their learning needs?
  • What types of performance support do our board members use in other areas of their lives? With what formats and processes are they already comfortable, and how might we incorporate them in a board setting?
  • What types of coaching, from whom, could be offered to board leaders while on the job?
  • What needs to be done to make formal learning experiences (e.g., orientations and formal training events) as effective as possible?
  • What types of post-event support do board members need to ensure that they have the best opportunities possible to incorporate what they learn into their governance practice?
  • What new resources - or forms of resources - are needed to support board learning and performance? How do we make them as accessible as possible to as many boards as possible?

I doubt I'll come away from 2015 with definitive answers to even these "foundational" questions. They're really the stuff of a lifetime of inquiry. If I can spark conversation - and maybe a little action - on a handful of them, it will be a great year.

NOTE: As I advance the "Building Environments for Board Learning and Leadership" theme, I'll be creating sets of resources for readers who are interested in exploring the topic on their own. One is a new Pinterest board, devoted to posts that address this theme. A set of bookmarks also will continue to grow with the series. At the moment, those resource lists are predictably small, but they will expand over time. For more general resources on both learning environments and performance support, visit my Pinterest board dedicated to those topics.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

2015 blog theme: Building Environments for Board Learning and Leadership

What is possible if we completely transform our way of thinking - and practice - about the way we prepare and support our nonprofit boards?

What if we treated investment in our boards' collective knowledge and leadership capacity as an investment in our organizations' and our communities' futures?

What if we saw board development as occurring not as isolated events but in environments that recognize the ways in which adults learn best?

What if we specifically built and supported environments for nonprofit board learning and leadership?

As an adult educator focused on board development, these types of questions have long dominated my thinking and writing. They've been at the center of this blog since its first post and even helped to define the site's name.

It may seem strange that I'm just now committing to a year spotlighting board learning, as this site's eighth anniversary approaches. I'd agree, it's long overdue. But the timing also makes sense, as I'm immersing myself more into evolving work on learning environments and ecosystems and the role of performance support in workplace learning and development.

I've been tippy-toeing around the topics when talking about nonprofit board development for a while. I've cautioned against the limits of the "learning=training" mindset that I still see too often in the sector, especially when talking about preparing our boards for their responsibilities.

Today, as 2015 nears, I'm ready to begin laying out the holistic, multi-layered environment that I believe we need to transform board development - and possibly nonprofit governance more generally.

I plan to spend a good share of 2015, in this space, outlining a plan for "Building Environments for Board Learning and Leadership."

As I continue to outline for myself - and, eventually, readers here - exactly what that might look like, the following foundation points guide me:

(Anticipated) Key Messages for 2015

Nonprofit boards, and their individual members, are leadership assets that must be valued, nurtured and supported.  They are worthy of the investment required to build their full collective and individual leadership capacities. It is, indeed, the only way they will succeed and serve us to their fullest and most effective.

Boards have a range of learning needs that must be met if they are to govern effectively.  These needs include (but are not limited to) topics related to their mission topic, to their organization, to innovative approaches to nonprofit governance, and to effective group dynamics. These needs are multi-layered and frequently intertwined.

We must respect board members' limited time. This means we need to find ways to appropriately embed learning into their existing work as much as possible. We also must recognize that learning already exists in that work, whether or not we recognize it as learning.

We benefit from conscious attention to how adults learn - and want to learn. From the standpoint of my writing here, this will translate into focused attention to select adult learning theories that  expand our thinking and understanding of what learning should look like in a board context.

Approaching board development from a learning environment perspective offers the potential for greater breadth and depth. It also requires recognizing and accommodating the different strengths and preferences of board members as adult learners.

"Technology" should be part of the support structure of board learning, but never added for its own sake. Adult board members already are using these tools in their other life roles. It makes sense to explore them as part of the board learning process, integrated into their existing work and personal routines. "Technology," however, should never be used for its own sake. It must support, not drive, any new approaches to board training and performance support.

In the end, what ultimately is needed is a sector-level effort to create and support the learning environments that our boards need and deserve. I can share ideas, research and insights. I can propose an agenda. I can invite and facilitate conversation.  I can create some shareable resources and create accessible learning experiences. But in the end, transforming the way we approach board development lies in the hands of the sector itself.

If we're lucky, individual organizations and/or groups of organizations may pilot some or all of what is proposed. Inevitably, I predict we'll need proof that making such a major shift in think and approach is worth the effort. If that's the case, I'll be glad to help those pilots happen. But in the end, it's a sector-level commitment that must be made.

I'll write a mix of posts in the year to come. Many will address board learning - and board learning environments - directly. Some will touch on board learning in more subtle ways. Others will cover completely unrelated (but board-focused) topics. I have a general idea of how this adventure might unfold, but what emerges in the months to come may surprise me more than anyone.

An important part for me, as an adult learner and reflective practitioner, will be making the process as transparent as possible. I'll be sharing my questions, my ahas, my mistakes, and my experiences. I'll learn from that process and trust that it will provide context that may be useful for others interested in the larger outcome.

In the end, if it expands understanding of nonprofit board development, if it increases sector knowledge about how adult learning theories can inform and enhance board learning processes, if it fosters conversations around how we can take that knowledge base and use it to transform how we prepare our boards for their leadership commitments, then it will have been a successful year.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Head, heart, gut: Engaging three different brains in the nonprofit boardroom

(Purchased from Bigstock Photo)

What brain are you using when you engage in boardroom discussions? What brains do your fellow members bring to the table?

You might guess (correctly) that I chose and read Marcia Reynolds' The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations Into Breakthroughs with nonprofit boards in mind. While the book was filled with insights that promise to transform board thinking, one of the most intriguing was Reynolds' description of Grant Soosalu and Marvin Oka's research on three types of brains - neural networks - that we have and use.

Reynolds describes the three brains and their primary functions this way:

Head brain: "reasons, analyzes, synthesizes, and makes meaning of what is perceived." (Curiosity)

Heart brain: "activates based on how the presenting situation relates to your aspirations and desires ranging on the scale from responding to the joy of achieving what you most dsire to sensing what you hoped for is out of reach." (Care or compassion)

Gut brain: "reacts to impulses of self-preservation, including reactions based on fear and the impulse or will to act on courage." (Courage)

Reading those descriptions with nonprofit boards in mind may prompt some us to think, "Hmm. Jane certainly checks her 'heart brain' at the door..." Or "It's obvious that Steve's 'gut brain' rules his thinking..." Or "Our board definitely could stand to kick its collective 'head brain' into gear more often..."

In reality, we all have all three capacities and they are not easily compartmentalized. Certainly, we may have our comfortable modes of thinking and working. If we've taken a broad view of diversity in our recruitment, we come to board work with individuals whose dominant modes of thinking operate in areas different than ours. But the point that must not be lost is that everyone has capacity in all three "heart" areas and they all are equally important in governance work.

"When we listen to one another from all three centers, conflicts are more quickly resolved and people feel more motivated to act," Reynolds says. We also create an environment with more breakthrough potential, because we are seeing problems and opportunities as three-dimensional phenomena.

I certainly can't - and won't - try to describe or justify the science behind the concept. But I will ask that we consider what we might learn if we try to become more conscious of the modes of thinking that we are applying as we discuss the issues raised in our boardrooms. What if we take it a step further and not only become more aware of the dominant modes but consciously attempt to ensure that we're using all three types described in this research in those same discussions?

What governance decisions can't be enriched by approaching them with a combination of curiosity, care/compassion, and courage?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Touching the board member's heart: Meaning making in nonprofit governance experience

Some experiences simply engrave themselves on the heart and remain there forever.  One of those experiences, for me, was preparing for and performing Handel's "Messiah" for the first time 40 years ago this month.

I was a new high school student, learning music that would be a short-term annual tradition. What I did not anticipate was that it was far more than memorizing music so I wouldn't embarrass myself on stage. It was creating an experience, in the company of others, that expanded my heart in unexpected ways.

Today, as I think again about not just the music but the ways in which it created a common bond between friends, I can't help applying what made that special to board service. I say that, trusting that many (hopefully, most) board members already have their own transformative governance experiences. I have. Unfortunately, they have been more rare than I would have hoped.

What lessons from creating that common musical connection with others can I take and translate to a meaningful board journey for individual members? I asked myself that question and came away with these key ideas.

The promise - and delivery - of something beautiful at the end. My single voice contributed, but the true magic came when it joined many others to create the greater melody and harmonies that resulted in a work of art. That is what happens when the right mix of people, skills and perspectives come together to govern: single contributions become collective thinking and creation of something they never could accomplish alone.

Appropriate, but not impossible challenge. My choir teacher was tough. She introduced us to the world greatest music and expected us to perform it beautifully. But she never bent us to the point of breaking (even when she put us in a concert hall with hundreds of others to sing Verdi's "Requiem." In Latin.).  The collaboration required to accomplish that "something beautiful at the end" calls on everyone to reach to the edges of their capabilities of these kinds of big but not impossible challenges. That is nonprofit governance at its fullest and finest: rising and stretching to move ever closer to our inspiring missions and visions.

It also requires a leader who...

Has the commitment to the larger picture, both the promise and the challenge described above. Performing this particular work was a tradition long before I arrived at my school. It was a tradition for as long as this director taught there. She was the common thread and the lead motivator who passed on her own commitment to the music to every student who performed it for and with her. Our board leaders may not (and should not) have her longevity, but they must have her strength of commitment to advancing the common goal and the willingness to share with and engage others in that quest.

Understands what is required of everyone, individually, to succeed as a group.
Our teacher knew, note for note, what was expected of the sopranos, altos, tenors and basses. She knew exactly what she needed from every member of the orchestra. And she knew how to draw what she needed from all of us to create the masterpiece as a whole. Nonprofit board leaders may not have sheet music spelling out every single note required of all of us; but they need to understand what each member must bring to the table to ensure that discussions, deliberations and decisions lead to the best that the group has to offer.

Has high standards for reaching the bigger goal and holds everyone accountable for his/her part in succeeding. I've written about this many times before, and it holds true here. Just as my teacher's high expectations for us as a group and as individual musicians drove us to work our hardest to attain that performance, so too do the high expectations of our nonprofit leaders and peers.

Helps individual members understand and produce their best performance. Miss S. didn't just throw us into the deep end of the musical pool and expect us to sink or swim. She gave us the tools and the practice opportunity - and the occasional correction - to reach our best. So, too, should board leaders learn what individual members need to perform their our best and provide appropriate support to help them reach for it.

Helps members create meaningful, inspiring experiences that engage their hearts as well as their minds. We did more than learn the notes. We created meaning in something beautiful that our instructor found and shared with us. We discovered the thrill of working together - one voice among many - to create something powerful that we only could accomplish together, aligning with the vision of something incredible that our guide shared with us. For most of us, that experience was far more than an exercise for a grade. It was a shared experience that opened our hearts, that we still hold dear decades later - even without the libretto in front of us. It was the collective experience of creating something greater than ourselves - and being able to share it with others.

Just as one teacher did every December, nonprofit board leaders have these same opportunities to create experiences that reach and expand individual members' hearts. They have the same opportunities - and expectations - to create and communicate a vision of a beautiful and challenging future toward which everyone moves.

For my classmates and me, that future was a glorious evening performance in an auditorium filled with music lovers. For nonprofit boards, it's a term filled with experiences that connect their hearts as well as their minds to something bigger. It's asking, and expecting them, to carry their part of the music of the mission. Offering opportunities to experience the results, even if those results are smaller steps connected to the mission and members' larger purpose in serving.

How will you, as a board leader, create experiences that engrave on the hearts of members? How will you help members find and create meaning that enriches their service and deepens their commitment to the larger harmonies required for you to fulfill your mission and change your community?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Before I die (or finish my board term): Leaving a personal nonprofit governance legacy

While they prepare for final exams next week, students at my home university are getting a tad philosophical (or maybe expressing anxiety about those finals...).

As I've watched different students make their own public declarations in this space the past few days, I've also been wondering how board members might respond to a variation on the same theme:

Before I die (or, at least, complete my term of service), I want to... 

How would I respond to that same open ended statement? Reflecting back on my own board experiences, I realize that I usually spent more energy up front focused on the task at hand: what I needed to learn, do, be to successfully uphold the commitments I was assuming as a new member. 

Obviously, those are appropriate goals for new members. But what if I - and you - looked just a bit further into the future at the beginning of each new board service term? 

What if we also took a few moments to complete that variation on our students' statement:

Before I complete my term of service, I want to...

Two questions immediately come to mind:

  • What, exactly, would the response(s) be?
  • How might contemplating one's individual legacy from the beginning help to shape that legacy by the time one wraps that up board service?

At the board level comes at least one question:

  • How might open conversations about our collective impact build and expand it as new members arrive and depart?

Specific responses will be uniquely individual, as they should be. But in general, introducing this reflection has the potential to foster the following:

  • Increased awareness that board membership involves more than showing up for meetings prepared. It invites conscious attention to ultimate impact - what we, specifically, can accomplish when we fully commit to all that effective governance requires.
  • More deliberate attention to what we, specifically, can contribute: our life experiences, our passion for the work, our connections that we can make between our networks and our organization, etc.
  • Acknowledgment that we have legitimate need to know that our investments of time, energy and other resources mattered - to us as much as the organization.

I offer this statement to be completed, and this process, as an additional tool for reflection and for more deliberate attention to another factor that facilitates fulfilling and effective governance performances and experiences.

What thoughts come to mind as you think about either your own response to that statement or about institutionalizing a step like this into your board processes?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Reconceptualizing nonprofit board needs: One perspective building from mission

Passion for mission? Not enough?

I must admit that the title of Chris Grundner's TEDxWilmington talk ("Modern nonprofit board governance: Passion is not enough!") caught my eye and drew me in when I first encountered it.

I'm still processing his pyramid of board needs (a take-off on Maslow's Hierarchy) and how it prioritizes those needs. But both Grundner's adaptation and the talk as a whole offer a thought-provoking discussion about what contemporary nonprofit governance really needs to fulfill its leadership priorities and potential. I share it today in the spirit of encouraging conversation and expanded thinking - again - about what it is that boards really require to govern effectively.

Please take a few moments (less than 14 minutes) to watch the talk in its entirety. In the meantime, let me list the four layers in his hierarchy for readers. On order of most foundational (base of the pyramid) to highest level, they are:

Passion for mission - also includes the basics of participation, e.g., showing up for meetings and events, making contributions. This parallels my own recruitment bottom line, commitment to mission. "Passion" for me it a step above commitment - and often comes with experience. But, as Grundner says, attraction to the mission is the starting point for board service.

Standards and best practices - critical to board excellence, effective only if we hold members accountable. He makes points about form following function and rules/processes applying equally to everyone. It should be so common sense that he need not point that out. Alas, in practice, we do sometimes play favorites, stretching policy or looking the other way when certain members fall short or misbehave. The larger point: structures and processes that facilitate board work have a legitimate place in nonprofit governance. The key - which can get lost if we are not attentive and committed to it - is that we must build in, and enact, individual and board-level accountability.

By the way, Board Educator Me appreciated him including "Continuing Learning Process" in the visual at this level. I wish he had expanded on that specific element in the talk itself.

Diversity - including diversity of skill sets and perspectives. There can be many ways to define and accomplish these diversity types. Grundner leaves that piece open but makes a great case for ensuring that we have the right mix of voices in the room that are "not afraid to challenge the status quo." He calls for a "culture of constructive conflict" where "purposeful disruption" is welcomed and used on the way to higher quality decisions.

Transcendent leadership - succession planning that creates a ready pipeline for new board members and avoids lost momentum with leadership turnover. Boards "must provide steady stewardship and bold leadership nor more than ever," Grundner says.

As I said, I'm still processing the structure and contents of the hierarchy itself. But the larger message and goals ring true, and Grundner's talk deserves extended visibility and discussion.

I'm interested in hearing what resonates for you, what causes pause, what inspires. What might this particular resource offer to our always growing understanding of nonprofit governance and the boards that enact it?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The state of our nonprofit boards: A few observations from the field

What exactly is the state of our nonprofit boards? What are the challenges, as seen in my field work and research? Where is my time best spent in the future as a board consultant and educator?

I've been reflecting on that more than usual lately, as I continue to work on a book, explore other board development-focused projects, and consider future directions for this blog.  As I do that, and as I also continue to reflect on my many interactions with boards, I keep coming back to a few common themes that drive (and occasionally trouble) me. Acknowledging that my experiences - and those of the boards with whom I've interacted - ultimately represent only a small snapshot of what occurs in the larger nonprofit community, I offer up a few of those themes in the spirit of knowing that they will ring familiar with many here.

Theme 1: Boards don't have a clue what they've really signed on to do.

For that, I blame the sector as a whole. We've done a terrible job of jointly creating and advancing a holistic understanding of nonprofit governance. As a result, boards really don't have a firm grasp of what they take on when they say yes to a term. Some sources have made reasonable attempts to create a bottom line, though we've completely failed to share even that work broadly. (I used to watch the color drain from board members' faces when I introduced the BoardSource 10 basic responsibilities as a starting point.) We treat the most basic attempts to shed some light on what it means to be a board member as trade secrets to be hidden at all costs.  Then we gripe when they fall short of those unstated expectations. That is unfair and unrealistic.

We've completely and utterly failed to communicate the bigger picture, the one that truly immerses boards in work that connects them and commits them to advancing the world-changing missions and visions that they are called to define and protect. One potential "bigger picture" already exists in Chait, Ryan and Taylor's revolutionary Governance as Leadership framework. But the lack of discussion, or even access to information about that model, is distressing. Frankly, I can't even keep a reliable set of bookmarked resources alive to share so we can have a discussion.  (Go ahead. Click on a few of those links. I'm betting some already have vanished, even though I review them regularly.) Sure, they can buy the book. But few board members and leaders know it exists. Even fewer have the time and money to purchase and read it. The point is, we need to do a better job of making information and ideas like this broadly accessible to those who need and want it.

Practically speaking, I'm seeing the need for a sector-level commitment to board performance support, more than training. That is the direction my own work will be taking.

Theme 2: What they know over-emphasizes the fiduciary/oversight role.

No, I'm not discounting those important responsibilities. Yes, oversight is an important board function. But it's not the only function of nonprofit governance and it's the one that is most likely to cause members to mentally check out or run for their lives when things get tough. Even when that's all boards focus on, many do a terrible job of it because they're not appropriately educated/prepared and they don't ask the types of inquiry questions that help them uncover the larger issues and opportunities. They just stare at financial statements that may tell only a portion of the true fiduciary story.

Theme 3: They want to be stretched, but the prospect scares them.

I regularly have conversations with boards about what governance really should be like, about the questions they should be asking, about the new ways of structuring their work to accommodate this change/expanded role. Most react positively, even enthusiastically, but they frequently balk. They want to say "YES!" But they stop short of doing so.

Many fear giving up the familiar, or at least traditional ways of dealing with the familiar. It may be work they hate, but they at least know what is expected. This is uncharted territory for many board members. They want clear, specific, definable steps for how to do what I am asking. When I can't always give exactly that, or when what I suggest sounds challenging or new (translation: potential to fail), the response too often is, "Well, then..." And they go no further.

My first reaction to this is to recognize my own responsibility to continue to develop ways to make the work of governance actionable. All of the work, especially the expansive inquiry, creativity and assessment capacities required of generative and strategic governance. As an adult educator, I know that that's a legitimate and very real need of board members. It is my job as a board consultant and coach.

However, I also recognize the need to keep pushing them to try something - anything - that initiates the process of transforming the way they work and govern. One of our biggest mistakes, in my mind, has been trying to reduce nonprofit governance to a series of easy steps that won't scare away prospective members. The important work that we ask them to do seldom is easy, and it's almost never reduced to a few quick steps that they can wrap up in one two-hour meeting. Yet we continue to conceptualize and structure the work as if that were the case.

We need to stretch them, support them in that stretch, and display confidence in their capacity to succeed when they do. They are smart people, after all. They are community leaders, chosen for all that that leadership entails. We need to finally act as if that were the case. Because it is.

Theme 4: The board and ED co-lead with complementary but not identical interests.

Nonprofit governance carries enormous leadership responsibility and potential for impact, but too many boards act as if that were news to them. Instead, many passively accept work tasks that, if not directly defined by the CEO, are heavily influenced by that person's agenda. Too many boards either don't understand, or don't choose to accept, the fact that both parties have legitimate, complementary responsibilities that together provide the leadership needed for the organization to move beyond mere survival.

See Theme 1 for a big part of the context for this one. Boards - and often CEOs - generally don't know better.  Sometimes, sadly, it's also often by design. I've worked with many EDs whose sole purpose in calling me in seems to be to act as the big meanie who'll straighten out their boards as if they were naughty children. That pretty much never works, mostly because that's not the real problem behind their boards' performance breakdowns.

We need to do a better job of not only creating and reinforcing bottom-line expectations but creating and supporting board self-empowerment. That starts with empowered and supported board leadership. It continues with empowered boards who work with their executives but who accept their own set of responsibilities that work in tandem with that person.

Theme 5: When boards are bored, fatigue hits more quickly and performance suffers.

Let me be frank. I see many willing hearts, hands and souls in the field. But mostly, I see a lot of bored board members who feel helpless to change their situation. That is not a place of empowered leadership. It's not reality. But it is their reality unless we do something to change that. Maintaining "the way we've always done it" will not do that. Treating generative discussions and fun breaks from the routine as something we do once a year, at the annual retreat (where they give up a precious Saturday to participate), will not do that. We need to commit to finding new ways to engage, educate, and stimulate our board members. We do not do that by adding on to an already long evening meeting. We need to commit to tossing out the dysfunctional practices and embedding those ways into the work that our boards do - acknowledging along with them that it may feel uncomfortable at first, but affirming that doing so will not only make them more productive but more personally fulfilled.

Inspired board members, who regularly do work that sparks their imaginations and draws on their greatest personal potential, are board members who will succeed collectively. The winners will be our organizations and our communities. Why in the world do we not act as if we don't know or want that?

Writing this particular post has been more of a "thinking aloud" experience for me as a reflective practitioner than an informative piece for readers. I chose the graphic to accompany this post as a personal reminder that I need to continue to translate this knowledge into actions and products that support the transformative work I'm addressing here and elsewhere.

It also is renewing my personal commitment to continue to build my voice, not only as an educator of boards but an advocate of boards. The more I continue along this journey, the more convinced I am that the latter may end up being my most important professional role.

What I hope it will offer readers is a chance to confirm or contrast your experiences with what I'm sharing here. More important, I hope it will inspire you to engage in a conversation about the similarities and differences - and that we might think together about what we can do to strengthen and support our nonprofit boards.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Dealing with nonprofit board dysfunction

How do we help our boards avoid the dysfunction that too often comes between them and the work that they gather to do? How do we handle that dysfunction as effectively - and quickly - as possible when it does enter the boardroom space?

This week, I share another video, produced by the Stanford Graduate Graduate School of Business, that addresses that topic in a succinct and helpful way.  I also offer a few reactions to what they provide here.

The first, and most important, point that they make comes at the opening: addressing boardroom issues is a peer-driven event. Ultimately, it belongs to the board members themselves to create - and reinforce - a healthy culture. That includes tackling problematic interactions, attitudes and performances themselves.  It's not fun. But it's critical to overall board performance.

The recommendation to document the dysfunctional behavior is important to making a credible case for change. That not only provides evidence to which the individual and group can respond (also note the call to consider group-level intervention), it also reduces the risk of it being perceived as a personal attack. It also offers a foundation for coming up with healthy and appropriate strategies to deal with the problem.

The caution to avoid unnecessary burning of bridges is an important one. First, as noted here, it's unlikely that whatever problem lies solely within one individual's actions. There may be one or more organizational/group factors that also contributed to the breakdown - including whether/how the board chairperson handled any challenge before the situation reached a point of no return.

Second, whether or not continuing on the board is a good option for the individual member or the group, that person undoubtedly still carries a commitment to the mission and the potential to continue to serve as a viable and valued ambassador for your mission. How you handle the problematic situation, and potential separation of service, can mean the difference between a continued loyal ally and an indifferent former member (or worse, an enemy).

I'm spotlighting this video as an encouragement to use it as a discussion starter for your board. What are your challenges to a functional and healthy boardroom culture? How do you handle them as a group? Do you accept collective accountability for tending to group health, or do you ignore it (or almost as bad, expect the CEO to handle the messy stuff for you?). What can you do to increase a collective sense of commitment to not only governance outcomes but to the environment in which those outcomes are created?

What can you do - as a group - to commit to making your board work not only more productive but more fun and fulfilling for members in the midst of it?

Friday, October 31, 2014

Overhead or impact: What do we want our nonprofit governance legacy to be?

I don't have much to say about this tweet that it doesn't say for itself. I'm sharing because it captures the theme of pretty much everything I write here: we do this important volunteer leadership work for the chance to make an impact. We want and deserve the opportunity to do so.

Not only is ensuring and increasing impact an essential responsibility of nonprofit governance, it's also a core motivator for most of us as community servants. That's the ultimate point of this quote (original source Dan Pallotta?).

As I've stated many, many times before here, we can't ignore the oversight responsibilities that come with governance. Obviously. But they shouldn't be our sole focus - and too many board meeting agendas are structured as if that were the case.

I'll leave this quote with you to ponder and to share with your own boards. What does it bring up for you? What changes might it prompt you to consider? How can you connect your board and individual members more closely to evidence that their contributions matter?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The power of intention in nonprofit governance: Building reflective leadership

"Get the big ideas right."

"Seek to strengthen organizational culture."

"Engage in dialogue (like never before)."

Transforming nonprofit governance is that simple. And that hard.

Daniel Forrester offered those three points during his BoardSource Leadership Forum keynote, "Boards, Leadership and the Power of Intention," earlier this month. In this talk, Forrester calls on boards to make reflection a highest leadership priority and practice. But in a distracted larger culture that places a premium on "busy-ness" - and a sector that demands "action" from its volunteer leaders, whether or not that "action" accomplishes anything resembling leadership - making the case for reflection and intentional practice can be a surprisingly tough sell.

I encourage you to watch, learn from, and reflect upon Daniel's entire keynote. In the meantime, I'll share my reaction to the three points above (beginning around 15:43 in the video) that Forrester call "a boardroom imperative."

"Get the big ideas right."

Governance is about big ideas: ideas about defining the future, ideas about meeting community needs in strategically smart ways,  ideas about stakeholder accountability and stewardship. It requires expansive, open conversations. It requires time to think, to incubate, to let the best possible "big ideas" emerge.

"When you're in the state of reflection," Forrester says in his keynote, "that's the moment when the real juice starts."

That's the moment where board members, individually and collectively, exercise their ultimate leadership potential. But how often do they spend their time exploring big ideas? If you asked them to articulate their big ideas for your organization, could they articulate any? Would there be any consensus in their attempts?

Do your meetings and other venues for board work even allow spaces for little ideas? Or are they crammed with "action items" that allow little interaction, let alone reflection? Do they create environments where your boards - and board members - become diminished with participation?

"The state of thinking is under attack," Forrester says. "Thinking and getting to decisive thought is what we are called to do. Boards and individuals can't become greater than the sum of their parts unless we reset the contract with ourselves."

"Getting the big ideas right" requires a radically different way of meeting and interacting. It requires deep, extended conversations in which organizational leaders communicate mission and vision and actually create opportunities for synergistic thinking.

"Seek to strengthen organizational culture."

We can't afford to ignore organizational culture, Forrester says. We also cannot separate strategy and culture and expect to succeed. Without a high-performing team ready to receive and act, we will fail in our efforts to change the world. You know. Our reason for being as nonprofits.

Daniel hones in on organizational values in unpacking this point. We must do more than plunk out a list of values, he says. We must enact them. We need to define them collectively and identify collectively the behaviors that represent those values in action. People inside and outside of the organization need to be able to see and experience our values in action.

"Culture matters deeply," Forester says, adding that ultimately it comes down to local leadership, starting with the board.

"Engage in dialogue (like never before)."

He had me at this quote: "Great dialogue...requires moments of pause."

Periods of collective reflection, time to take a breath and consider before leaping into decisions. "People need time to think," he says. "They need time to process." Do we build the pauses into our board routines and agendas? Experience tells me that most of us do not. 

Responsibility for creating that space lies in the hands of board leaders, he says. I agree. There is nothing sacred about common notions of board meeting agendas, even though we often act as if that were the case.

Board leaders have the power to structure governance work in very different ways.They have the power to clear the junk from meeting agendas. They have the power to focus board attention on big ideas and open, expansive dialogue. They have the power to engage member brains and imaginations in ways that lead to "1+1=3." They have the power to create moments of reflection that foster meaning-making and more nuanced, thoughtful decisions.

As Forrester says, they have the power to "change the entire trajectory" of their organizations and the boards that govern them. But will they? What do we need to do to spark that transformation?

The other lessons within this brief talk are myriad. I invite you to watch. Then watch again. Then share and discuss with your boards the steps you could take today to govern more intentionally and reflectively.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Effective nonprofit board meetings: Questions, engagement, energized exits


I said that a lot while watching this brief video from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. The themes of what is shared will ring familiar to regular readers of this blog. But the chance to share these expert voices advocating for the kinds of meaningful member engagement - and discussion-focused agendas - in board meetings feels like a great idea this week.

A few of the highlights to point out as you watch:

  • Bruce Lesley's call for "thoughtful" agendas and treatment of board meetings as events - where  there is clarity about what is to be accomplished, where the board chair acts as facilitator and draws out participation by every member. Oh, and most noteworthy (because of its clear departure from where our usual attention is focused): awareness of "how you want people to feel during and after the meeting." I love that he's raising member experience as a concern to which we should be tending. Fulfilled, stimulate members are productive leaders.
  • Ben Klasky's description of  how his board uses consent agendas to free up time for substantive discussions, often conducted in small groups to encourage full participation. Doing so, he says, allows focus on asking for and receiving board advice on pressing questions and concerns - a far better use of members' time and expertise than asking them to listening to endless "talking heads" reports. (Note his lack of anxiety, as a CEO, over not having his time to share an oral version of his report to his board. EDs, the world won't end if we receive your updates in writing.)
  • Ruth Jones' observation about how flipping her board's agenda ensures that prime thinking time is spent on forward-thinking discussions on topics that matter, moving fiduciary/oversight functions until the end.
  • Jones talking about how attention to building relationships and trust is time well spent for her board. And absolutely priceless to me as a board member: her description of how they use that investment in relationships to create meeting experiences where "people leave the meeting feeling...more stimulate and energized than when they arrived." As she so wisely observes: "A board meeting where people leave feeling drained and tired is a board meeting that has failed in its purpose."
A. Men.

If you were to pick one piece of advice from what is shared in this video to implement in your board, what would it be and why?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Messing around in the nonprofit boardroom: How we REALLY learn how toact, work

Purchased from Bigstock Photo

How do nonprofit board members mess around, and how does that impact what happens when they gather to govern?

I couldn't help asking myself that question last week, while reading a new book on a totally unrelated topic. (Regular readers know how I love creative and occasionally insane stretches.) The author, Reynol Junco, was making a slightly smaller stretch of his own, drawing from research on "messing around" as a developmental process in which young people learn how to interact and work with their peers.

How do they (how did we) "communicate with their peer group, discuss difficult issues, share successes without seeming to brag," etc.? It's a process that happens over time, largely by "messing around." (p. 133)

Junco's stretch is to apply that process to young people's technology use: using social tools to learn how to become part of a larger community, often via trial and error. That leads to insights about "what is culturally appropriate and acceptable and what isn't, within the context of their peer group." They "test the waters" via their interaction.

I read and reflected on both notions within the intended context, wearing my "connected educator" hat. But thoughts about the potential application to what happens in our boardroom interactions and, specifically, how members learn "how things work here" planted themselves in my brain.

How do things work? We may have our policies and our values about boardroom roles and structures. But as they do in any room of two or more people, board members largely learn how things really work by observing and participating.  They learn via trial and error. They learn by stepping on toes and pointing out the uncomfortably obvious.

They learn by messing around.

The question I'm asking myself - and you - today is this: What does "messing around" look and sound like in our boardrooms? What are the types of actions, reactions and markers that members experience and absorb, whether or not they fit the official rules and espoused norms of the group?

The answers to these questions could be endless. But here are some of the examples that come to mind for me today.

Do members show up on time, and does it matter? Are there consequences for not arriving on time, prepared to work, or is it allowed to continue to happen? Something as simple as this not only sets expectations for timely arrival, but a tone that reinforces respect, or lack thereof, for the work undertaken when they arrive.

What do board conversations look like? Are they open and respectful, even when members disagree? Is there a lot of talk overlap, and does the overlap hurt or encourage creative discussions?

Are people allowed to sit quietly in meetings? That one may surprise, since I'm always pushing for full member engagement in discussions. But as one of those quieter members, I'm sensitive to how people like me are drawn to participate. Is their quiet treated as a functional way of respecting their thought processes? Or is it used as an excuse to avoid a contribution that may be contradictory or creating challenges to consensus?

How do we deal with disruption? What happens when that disruption is ultimately a different way of seeing and thinking? What happens when it is interpersonal in nature and interrupts the work we are doing? Is there a difference in how we treat the two scenarios? Do we deal with them at all?

What are the real consequences of not following through on commitments? How do we hold each other accountable for what living up to expectations set and promises made?

How are new members brought into board work? Are they drawn in immediately, in respectful and inviting ways? What happens when they do - for the new members themselves? For the rest of the board?

What happens when someone makes an "inappropriate" statement or asks an "inappropriate" question? What effect does it have on the discussion and tone? What defines "inappropriate" for our board? How do we know? Does the answer differ for different members?

What kinds of activities and actions help us feel like we're in this together? Are they all "business" and on task, or do they allow for informal connections?

What types of markers do we recognize to demonstrate - to us - that we're making a difference? How do we define and articulate that to each other? Do we stop long enough to acknowledge that all of the work we're doing matters? Can we see how it matters, even when it's not easy to see?

How do we have fun as a group? How is that fun treated? As a distraction? As something to save for the next retreat? As a normal mode of working and an integral part of effective leadership team culture?

This list is hardly definitive of how boards "mess around." A few may be off the mark, even with the stretch I'm making and asking you to make. But I hope it sparks some awareness of the kinds of actions and interactions that foster, challenge, or inhibit completely the kinds of group dynamics that shape what really happens when we gather to govern.

For more insights into health board dynamics and the challenges to effective board interactions, visit the "Board Dynamics" resources shared on this site.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Board Leadership Forum: Favorite insights, highlights from day two

Day one of the BoardSource Board Leadership Forum offered so many insights that I couldn't help following the backchannel for day two yesterday.

No surprise: there were as many noteworthy ideas and takeaways shared as there were on Thursday. I'd like to share a few of the tweeted highlights from Friday morning, along with the reactions they sparked for me.

It's about the purpose. Really.


This one thrilled for two reasons. One: it quotes Richard Chait, co-author of the book that changed everything for me (and the model that promises to transform nonprofit boards, Governance as Leadership). Two, it states so starkly and so beautifully the bottom line for boards. That's single-minded focus on defining and advancing purpose - advancing the mission of the organization and the vision of a better future for all that it feeds.

"As the head turns, so the body turns." Wow. So beautiful. Max's summary statement leading up to it frames it perfectly. Boards aren't helpless minions of executive directors. They are leaders responsible for setting their tone and creating their climate for doing the important work of governance. The essence of that work is dialogue. The content of that work is the larger purpose that draws them together and the responsibility for moving it forward in substantive and meaningful ways.

I was simultaneously glad and discouraged that "dialogue" was a focus: glad because we should be exploring ways to make that process as wide-open, rich, and productive as possible; discouraged because the tone of what was being shared was more a case for dialogue. I've said it too many times to count, here and elsewhere, but the situation begs for one more:

Big discussions about big questions aren't "frills." They aren't "topics to save for our next retreat." The are governance.

BoardSource and its partners launched Stand for Your Mission this week. I encourage you to visit the initiative's site and download the discussion guide (and expect a follow up here in the near future). What I see there is so exciting, so empowering for boards. For the moment, let Tim Delaney's quote here sink in. Think about what it represents for the leadership potential of your board. Imagine what is possible when that full potential is enacted.

It's the process. Really.

Gail! Though I've never met her, Gail Perry is both a kindred spirit and a wise guide who is forever expanding my thinking about how we engage our boards. She is the queen of her specific expertise area: nonprofit fundraising. But she also has deep understanding of the larger motivation needs of board members. Boring meetings=bored boards. Amen, my friend. Amen. Now what are we going to do about that?

Speaking of fundraising... Does anyone see a problem with this? Nothing bothers me as a board member more than having the "fundraising failure" specter held over my head when nothing is done to ensure that I won't fulfill that negative prophecy. I've served on local, state and national boards for 31 years. As I re-read this tweet, I'm hard pressed to think of a single board that offered my peers and me meaningful training or support to rise to the expectations held for us. Is it any wonder that we "fail?"

The very first recommendation I have to change that is to turn to my friend, Gail. Her blog and her fantastic book, Fired-Up Fundraising, address far more than the mechanics of raising dollars. They offer frank and encouraging discussions about what board members need to feel confident, prepared, and motivated to make connections far beyond asking for money. 

Flip the agenda! Yes, flip the agenda! If board members balk at making the changes our agendas really require, flipping the agenda - placing the substantial topics and conversations at the beginning of the meeting and saving the reports until the end - is the best possible alternative. 

The fiduciary mode of governance (one of three Governance as Leadership modes) is far more multi-layered than many boards practice it. The oversight element is most familiar: do the numbers match up? Is our income enough to cover needs? What can we cut when it doesn't? Those kinds of questions matter. But so do the inquiry questions, which ask about priorities: does our spending match our mission? Are we devoting resources - financial and otherwise - to our priorities? Are we good stewards of those resources? Are we making a difference in deploying them?

We humans are meaning-making beings. We board members offer greater value when we create meaning as we work. Boards need to ask "why"in addition to "what" and "how." That needs to be an integral part of every conversation we have.

One more from Gail, because the topic is so close to my heart (and my professional reason for being). Learning doesn't end with orientation. Learning keeps us growing. Learning builds our effectiveness. Learning expands our impact. Learning keeps us motivated. Boards are learning, whether or not we recognize it. (See the "Board Learning" page here for some specifics shared so far. Stay tuned for my evolving Board Learning Environment model.)

I'll end this on a happy note: happy because (a) it's a nod to Governance as Leadership (fiduciary, strategic and generative modes) and (b) it calls on our nominating processes to think more broadly - and more specifically for a GAL boardroom - to the capacities that contribute to the diverse range of perspectives, talents and mindsets needed to govern.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Stalking the Board Leadership Forum backchannel: Favorite session tweets on culture, reflection, learning, leadership

Monitoring the BoardSource Board Leadership Forum backchannel is hardly the same as being there this week; but the good folks tweeting from the event offered a nonstop flow of insights and intrigue today.

My own retweets were plentiful (what they were posting was that good), but I captured some of my very favorites for sharing with you here. Following are the highlights, with a note or two of reaction.

Culture matters. Really.

I was most heartbroken about missing Daniel Forrester's opening keynote address. (I'm a big fan of his book, Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking in Your Organization.) These three tweets illustrate why.  Action orientation in nonprofit governance is important, but it's ill-informed - and risky - when not supported by a culture of thoughtful deliberation, critical thinking, reflection and continuous learning. 

I was thrilled to see Daniel on the agenda, because I knew that reflection would be center stage at this forum. Creating a culture where reflective practice is a priority can only lead to great things for boards, their organizations and their communities. That often requires a radically different mindset - and agenda - than many boards currently experience.

The work matters. Really.

Yes, in the end, boards do.  They do it better - and most effectively - when it is intentional. That takes time and commitment to invest in whatever is required to govern and lead.

Take a breath. Set aside the day behind you. Bring your focus and full attention into the room. So simple. So powerful. So needs to be a standard part of board practice - a trigger for reflective practice, actually.

Boards obviously have a legitimate oversight role. There is a time and a place for asking tough questions and narrowing choices. But boards ultimately hold responsibility for the future: defining a vision worthy of their communities and a mission that moves everyone closer to it. That requires the capacity think and work expansively. It requires the ability to engage in "Yes, and..." thinking.

Sensemaking is one of the most important contributions of thoughtful board processes. It's how we connect the dots, understanding how they fit and what's possible when the sum is greater than the parts. It's how we make sense of our experiences, a process that blossoms when regular time is built in to think and reflect. Not a special event process. A routine, core component of governance.

It's all about the questions. But then, you know that. Questions invite engagement. Questions invite collaboration. Questions spark generative thinking and feed reflection.  Questions immerse board members in visioning work. Questions drive critical thinking that lead to smarter, more effective decisions. The capacity to ask great questions really is more important. They also lead to great answers.

My friend, Emily, packed a lot into two sentences; and they're a great fit. Boards need to understand organizational culture to be effective, which takes - you guessed it - time, dialogue and commitment.


This one brings three complementary responses for me. One, hurray! Empowering the board chair/president to take on that role in directing board discussions (and everything else that unfolds at the meeting) shouldn't be in question. It should be an expectation of the responsibilities assumed in taking the job. Two, there is a management function involved in that process to ensure that the board's time is spent on high-impact areas and activities (and that unproductive tangents are avoided). Three, I also see a leadership function in creating high expectations for one's peers and the board as a whole, and to facilitating the kinds of creative stretches that become something great.

I so wanted to be in this session after reading Max's update. Board members want to be involved in exactly this kind of work. They/we want to be engaged in consequential thinking and planning and connecting. We want to have an impact. These are the kinds of questions that lead to work that matters. This is what boards should be doing.

Whoa. Pointed and on point. Which best describes how our boards spend their time? Where should they be spending their time? 

People matter, too. Really.


Anything that moves us away from relying solely on checklists of demographics and job titles in recruiting the right people to the boardroom table is a good thing. This list from the YMCA led to a small fist-pump when it appeared in my feed. Imagine the potential of a room full of board members who bring these capacities (and more) with them.

I had a hard time narrowing down what I would share. Many important topics made their way into the backchannel, from sessions that undoubtedly expanded participants' thinking and understanding. In the end, I chose to focus on a smaller subset of themes that spoke to me. I leave those that made the cut with you to ponder and spark your own reflection on what they might mean to you and your board.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Healthy vs. smart: Key differences and their impacts on nonprofit governance success

Did I mention you'd be seeing more from Patrick Lencioni's work on organizational health?

This brief video points out what should be obvious to boards (but may not be, because we don't talk about these topics): boards need to be both smart and healthy. Those of us who pay attention to board development - boards and consultants - tend to have the "smart" component down. We focus on the elements that typically signify board effectiveness. Look at his list under that category - technology, strategy, finance, marketing - for hints.

We may struggle a bit with execution in the boardroom, but we're reasonably aware that those are the kinds of capacity and focus muscles that boards are expected to build. Lencioni says they typically receive 95 percent of the attention in team development. In my experience working and talking with boards, that feels about right.

But what about the "healthy" half of the equation? His bottom line involves the following: minimal politics, minimal confusion, high levels of morale and productivity,  and low turnover among good people.

This description (related to high morale and productivity) particularly caught my ear:

"People are psyched to come to work and they get a lot done when they're there." 

Can our boards, and our individual members, say that on a routine basis?

Note that Lencioni doesn't say "ignore the smart." But he does call on us to attend to both sides. He also cautions us to avoid the trap of falling back on the "smart" half because it's where we're comfortable. He further points out that that isn't where the greatest potential lies.  

Let that sink in for a moment. We can't ignore the "smart" elements, but they aren't where our ultimate opportunities for differentiation and impact exist. As he says, most organizations today are smart enough to succeed.

Then Lencioni asks a question that I challenge every board leader to pose and make a priority:

Are we healthy enough to tap into the intelligence that we have?

To the extent that we routinely fail to make full use of the gifts that our individual board members bring to the table, I believe the answer for most of us is no.  Not at all. The reason: we aren't attending to the health of our board as a team and the morale needs of our individual members. That is as much the fault of the sector and many who focus on board development as it is individual board leaders.

I'm working to rectify that on my end. What can your board to do take a step toward nurturing your team health?

Monday, September 29, 2014

Name that bias: three common tendencies that challenge nonprofit board effectiveness

 Bigstock Photo

I'm not biased. Am I? You're not biased. Right? Certainly, we harbor nothing that can play out in troublesome ways when we enter our board meetings? Correct?

The truth is, we all have our notions of how groups are supposed to work and how things are supposed to unfold. Some of them, frequently unconscious, impact what happens when we gather to govern.

I've been thinking about some of those common notions while revisiting Patrick Lencioni's excellent book,  The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business. One of the bigger board-related takeaways is his list of three types of common biases that hinder a group's overall health. Naturally, as I reflect on that list today, impacts on the ways in which boards work come to mind.

The following examples may be familiar to anyone who has served on a nonprofit board. One or two may stretch the author's original intent, but that's okay. I offer them to spark some thinking and conversation  and, hopefully, opportunities to change our practice once we know about them.

Sophistication Bias -- It's so simple and available to anyone who wants to work on it that it can't provide any meaningful challenge.

There may be specific tasks of board work that fall into this category. But as I reflect on this one, I'm drawn to a couple of areas that are even more basic: meetings and board dynamics.

In the field, I encounter some pretty strong notions of what board meetings are supposed to look like: how they're structured, topics considered appropriate, ways in which we are to address those subjects, how long they should be, etc.  I've also encountered equally strong push-back when I suggest that, guess what, none of those traditions are sacred. We don't have to save the meaty topics until the end. We don't have to fill agendas with reports that bore. We actually can have big, open conversations about subjects that usually wait until the annual retreat in board meetings themselves.

I believe that one of the bigger challenges to changing the board meeting status quo is connected to sophistication bias: "the way boards meet" is such a gimme that no one stops to question it. We just do - even when that doing is ineffective.

I also see elements of sophistication bias when it comes to boardroom dynamics. How people interact with each other feels so basic that we don't stop to question or confront. We assume smart people know how to interact with other adults. "Common sense" tells us that participants won't overstep their bounds, interrupt, shut someone else down, ask embarrassing questions. These group rules of the road are so "basic" that we simply expect them to play out when we're in a room with others. We may grumble when someone crosses a line, but we don't necessarily stop and address a breakdown - in part - because we all "know better."

Adrenaline Bias -- It requires time and a long-term commitment and, as a result, does not feed our need for adrenaline and action. We can't or won't slow down long enough to attend to it.

We're community leaders. We're action oriented. We're here to make a difference. We want to decide, darn it. The adrenaline bias creates an undercurrent of impatience and dissatisfaction. It also feeds the temptation to push for board goals, meeting agendas, and committee charges that have clear but superficial benchmarks.

Quantification Bias --  It's difficult (maybe even seemingly impossible) to measure, which reduces its perceived value. Results are largely intangible.

This challenge is as old as nonprofits themselves. The truth is, most of our missions have elements that are intangible (usually, the good stuff). Some aspects of our work either literally are impossible to measure or so challenging that they feel that way. But we have funders, regulators and others who want evidence that we are making an impact. They deserve that evidence and, more important, those we serve deserve it.

But what results is a tendency to focus on measurable results and activities - especially those that are easy to measure. They are important, but they do not tell the whole story. We need to push ourselves, and our staffs, to not lose sight of the deeper impacts while we're quantifying the things that can be counted.

I suspect this is a factor - perhaps unconscious - in our obsession with dashboards, financials, and other things that involve numbers. They have a legitimate place in governance, obviously. But the quantification bias invites the risk that we hone in on them at the expense of the higher-impact work. We can see and respond to them. We can do something about them and see forward motion (or something to fix), even if what we do isn't the stuff of true mission advancement.

Certainly, we need balance. We need intermediate steps toward the massive mission challenges we are charged with resolving. Some decisions really are simple But we can't let our need to mark something - anything - off an agenda keep us from grappling with the deeper issues that are our responsibility as community leaders.

Lencioni's work on organizational health offers much to inform our thinking about what it takes to create healthy, high-functioning boards. (Read his book!) I can almost guarantee another post - or more - as I continue to reflect on his work.

In the meantime, I encourage you to consider how these biases may be shaping how your board interacts and works. I invite you to share this post with your board and facilitate a discussion about what those impacts might be and how you can collectively be more conscious and more deliberate in choosing healthier ways to work together.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Should I say yes? Observing, assessing fit before accepting a nonprofit board invitation

(Purchased from Bigstock Photo)

Should I say yes to this nonprofit board invitation? Will I be a good fit with this group? Can I make a real contribution to its work? Will I enjoy working with this board?

This week, I've been exploring what it takes to be a healthy and high-functioning nonprofit board with a new group of friends interested in the sector. In those discussions, we're talking about meeting agendas that help boards focus on governance. We're also spending some time considering the group dynamics that allow that structure to flourish. Our focus on the revolutionary board framework, Governance as Leadership, requires a truly different approach to the work and a culture where members feel free, safe, and empowered to lead.

Something I almost always recommend as an effective board practice - and common sense for the prospective member - inevitably arose in the conversation. That advice: visit one or more board meetings before an invitation is extended by the board or accepted by the prospect. Usually, it's more from the perspective of the board ensuring that it's making the right call in pursuing this recruit. In this case, my rationale for the suggestion is encouraging the prospect to observe and evaluate whether the environment is (a) healthy, (b) productive and (c) a place where he/she can find a satisfying and fulfilling fit.

That left me thinking: If I were again that prospective board member, what would I look for today? What would help me understand the environment better so that I could make an informed decision? The resulting list is entirely too long to be realistic, but a few musts did emerge. Here are some of the observation essentials that unfolded.

The structure/work

What is the room set-up? Does it feel comfortable and conducive to the work required? Does it have a "corporate" feel? Does it feel informal, maybe overly informal, maybe even a little chaotic? Is there space for everyone, with whatever they need to participate fully waiting for them? Does it look like the organization is prepared for the important work that is about to take place there? Is this an environment that appeals to you?

Who sits where? Is that designated for them (e.g., name plates already set up)? Do they move, or do members each have their "seats" (identified in multiple observations, which I routinely recommend)?  Does this match the level of formality in the board's interactions observed in the meeting?

Do the board members come prepared for the work ahead? Are they ready to discuss the lead meeting topics when they arrive? Do some hem and haw and shuffle papers looking for information needed to respond? If so, is that because the information they seek was waiting for them on the boardroom table or because they are opening the board packets sent earlier at the meeting?  (Either scenario is a board-level problem - they aren't getting what they need in a timely manner or they aren't held accountable, by their peers, for taking the work seriously.)

What does the agenda look like? Do reports about events past dominate it? Are there big, mission-focused questions with plenty of time to explore them? Ask a board member: how representative is this of the typical agenda? The agenda is the single best predictor of whether you will be governing or wasting time on details with no real opportunity for impact.

What kinds of questions are asked? By whom? Does the conversation they spark go anywhere? Do the questions and resulting discussions lead to deeper insights, meaningful decisions, commitments to action? Do the questions posed excite or interest you?

What role does the CEO play in the meeting? Does he/she offer multiple reports on different topics? Is he/she the first to respond to questions posed? Does the ED seem to lead part (or all) of the meeting? What does this person's participation suggest about the nature of the board/CEO relationship?

How are committees involved in meetings? Does their work advance the board's governance responsibilities, or does it mirror management functions? Does it deepen board understanding of issues and inform board decision making? Does their work seem fun and/or intellectually stimulating to you?

Do they make - and use - opportunities to stop and reflect on what they are considering? On what they have accomplished? Do they appreciate their work, gather their thoughts, bring appropriate closure to conversations that are ongoing?

Did they learn something new about the organization, their mission area, or their work as board members?

Do most - preferably all - members leave with at least one item for follow up at the end of the meeting? Was there evidence that they came prepared to share what they committed to do last time? Do they own the work, individually as well as collectively?

Boardroom dynamics

Does the board chairperson lead the meeting? Is that leadership effective: does the board stay focused, is broad participation facilitated, are members expected to fulfill responsibilities? Is this a peer-driven, peer-accountable leadership team?

Is the board chairperson cognizant of who's engaged in board deliberations? Does he/she make conscious efforts to facilitate full participation? Does he/she draw out those who are quiet, reign in the chatty? Are the overbearing members handled respectfully but decisively?

Are members respectful but unafraid to challenge each other in service to their larger purpose? Do they welcome and consider multiple viewpoints, or do they seem to reach one "clear" answer too quickly and easily? If the latter, how closely does that "clear" answer resemble what the ED has in mind?

Do all individual members appear invested in the board's and organization's success? How do they demonstrate that ownership?

Do you see yourself having a place at this table in the future?