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.


Marion Conway said...


Thanks for sharing this. I think this is sooo important to take the time for reflection and thinking. Everything is so fast moving today and we don't take the time for depth and so things becomes very fleeting. We need to take the time - and reflect and pause - if we are to develop the big ideas that will stick and remember the importance of communication. Communication goes in multiple directions - it is not a one way direction. All of it is important. Take the time to think and listen.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

So important, and such a hard case to make for some boards, Marion. I'm always shocked when I receive resistance to the notion of opening up space for questioning and thinking. Slowing down. That action orientation comes from a good place, but it's pervasive and ultimately counterproductive when it doesn't allow us to take the time we need. So much lost opportunity.