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?

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