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?


Nancy Iannone said...

our post brings back wonderful memories of singing the Messiah in high school. Also thinking about times when board member each contributed their voice to something beautiful. That is an incredible feeling. How would the world be different if that were the norm for board service, not the exception?

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Beautiful question, Nancy, one that we should be askiing every board and board leader. Can you imagine the transformation, not only of what happens in the boardroom (though that would be pretty spectacular!), but to board service more generally? To those who have the privilege of serving? Wow!

Norm King said...

I often think a shared emotional experience outside of the NFP boardroom, be it challenging and/or uplifting, 'sets the table' and enhances a productive culture inside a NFP boardroom.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Thoughtfully and deliberately created events of that type can be extremely powerful, Norm. I facilitate an annual retreat for a local board that is such a pleasure - and effective -for exactly that reason. The purpose varies from year to year but usually centers around key questions (and sometimes developing questions to be asked). There also is an inevitable component where board members are drawn closer to the mission and the work of the organization, often a natural result of the larger process.

They are my exemplar board, by the way. :)