Friday, February 28, 2014

Agenda item: Silent starts to big discussions

Agenda item 9: Begin important discussions with a silent start.


This week's agenda item for advancing generative nonprofit leadership comes straight from Governance as Leadership, the seminal text on nonprofit boards.

Before launching a significant discussion, begin with a silent start. Ask members to take two to five minutes to write down on an index card "the most important question the board and management should consider relevant to the issue at hand" (p. 128).

Collect the cards, mix them up, redistribute them, and have members take turns reading the questions submitted. Look for themes emerging in the responses. What emerges as most critical? What do they suggest about where members' minds, interests and concerns are as you begin deliberations?

There are at least a couple of reasons I consider this exercise to be agenda-worthy. One, it encourages board members to pause for a moment, shift gears, and prepare for a thoughtful conversation about topic that is worthy of their expertise and wisdom.

Two, it asks participants to reflect on what they consider to be the questions most compelling before embarking on the discussion. By taking that time to center their thoughts and articulate their highest priorities for discussion - and sharing those questions with the group - they raise the potential for focused and productive deliberations. They have a starting point, they have a sense of highest priorities, and they have the opportunity to govern rather than wander.

Every time I revisit Governance as Leadership and its board-friendly counterpart, Practitioner's Guide to Governance as Leadership, I'm reminded of the revolutionary nature of the model they describe - and that I have chosen as the foundation for the generative governance agenda that I am laying out this year. Moving forward on that agenda, I'm thinking that I will be more deliberate in sharing highlights from both resources, and my own interpretations/research based around that model.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Board competency 4: Engage respectfully with divergent personalities, perspectives

This is the fourth in a 10-part weekly series expanding upon the core nonprofit board competencies that I laid out in a recent post.

Core board competency 4: The capacity to engage respectfully with a wide range of personalities and worldviews.


There's a certain "well, du-uh..." quality to this competency. As adults, we all should be able to hear, discuss, respect and analyze a range of perspectives that inform the decisions that are part of nonprofit governance.

It is an essential capacity for our boards (and adults generally). Yet because board members share a common commitment to the organization's mission and vision of how things should be. There can be an (unspoken) expectation that "unity" equals "never question or stir up things." We need to get over that, especially if we're serious about recruiting members who don't look, think, and act exactly like we do. 

I've written before about the importance of appreciating and working with the right kind of board conflict. I'll not rehash what I shared in that earlier post, but I will reinforce the need for not just tolerating but seeking out and finding the best possible options for our organizations.

With respect to this competency, we need the following from every board member:
  • Open-mindedness
  • Respect for our common commitment to vision and mission
  • Ability to communicate respectfully even/especially when we disagree
  • Appreciation for the value in hearing and learning from differing points of view

This blog's "board dynamics" page captures posts that address this capacity, and building an effective board culture more generally. I'd be interested in hearing about not only experiences that challenge civil board engagement but that represent boards that welcome the chance to interact with a diverse range of perspectives.


Monday, February 24, 2014

Hunting our boardroom assumptions

What kinds of assumptions underlie our nonprofit boardroom discussions, and how do they impact the outcomes of those discussions?

In some respects, we need a set of basic understandings to streamline our interactions. If we stop and question how to proceed on every little thing, we'd never accomplish anything as a board. But not all assumptions that we carry into the room facilitate group work. Often, they stand in the way of our collective productivity and they blind us to the creative approaches and answers that our nonprofits need.

What kinds of assumptions do individual board members carry in their lives and in their governance work? While they are as individual as the people who hold them, adult educator Stephen Brookfield* describes three categories of assumptions, each of which can both facilitate board work and challenge when they are unchecked.

Prescriptive - "our beliefs about how we should behave." We have general notions about how adults communicate. Occasionally, we will run into an individual who doesn't interact "appropriately" or, at least, has less than stellar moments in a group setting. It's possible that we all are that individual at some point. In board settings (and in other groups), there is a culture - a "way we work" - that may not be articulated or evaluated. It's invisible to us, until it breaks down.

Some types questions that we may ask to uncover some of our prescriptive discussions:
  • Are we collaborative?
  • Do we expect newcomers to observe and not challenge, or to jump in?
  • Are we okay with disagreements?
  • How do we handle disagreement when it happens?

Often, especially with very experienced board members, conflicts arise when we bring together different notions about how we work and interact. We bring our previous board traditions and assumptions about how governance "works" into the room with us, not stopping to ask if this board works the same way.

Healthy groups stop periodically and ask: is the way we work functional? Healthy? Productive? What could be changed to enhance our effectiveness?

Paradigmatic - "deeply held beliefs of mental models that shape how we view the world." In this case, "deeply held" usually translates into "invisible" and "unchallenged." One important step to not only uncovering paradigmatic assumptions but harnessing them for good is to routinely take time to articulate and discuss organizational values:
  • What are they?
  • How are the demonstrate in our work?
  • Where are the gaps between espoused values (what we say we value) and our work? 
  • How do we close those gaps?

It is important to regularly assess our work, in part, based on values congruence.

Causal - "allow us to explain and predict circumstances."What unspoken assumptions about how things work define our expectations - as a group and as individual board members? What challenges arise when those expectations remain unspoken? In the press of "getting things done," busy volunteer leaders often fail to stop and ask about the assumptions each of us are making as we deliberate and evaluate options that serve the nonprofit and community. Even if we "know" how things will work, it's still important to stop and ask "what if..." In my experience, this one can be both the greatest source of conflict when unchecked and the greatest source of generative governance when recognized and respected.

Brookfield offers a "framework for critical action." This process starts with "hunting assumptions," actively seeking out and bringing to collective consciousness those assumptions that shape how we think and act. In this process, we need to not only define but discuss how they inform and constrain our responses.

This is especially important in a governing body, where most of us are actively seeking and claiming to value diversity in all forms. Adding to the challenge is the action orientation of time-pressed volunteers wanting to simply make it through the agenda. Setting aside time to do this critical work becomes a "nuisance" or the dreaded "frills" instead of an integral part of creating a high-functioning leadership team.

Next in Brookfield's "critical action" frame is checking assumptions: holding them up against reality How do they stack up? How do they conflict? How do they facilitate vs. inhibit effective governance? The third step is seeing from different viewpoints: actively seeking other perspectives, discussing, and expanding our individual and collective thinking. (That, obviously, is where the value of our efforts to diversify our boards comes into play.) And, finally, is taking informed action.

What assumptions - about governance, about your mission, about your programs and community - drive your board's interactions and work? How do they facilitate the kind of effective leadership that you need to succeed? How do they limit your potential?

How can you bring them to light so that they can be (re)shaped and transform the governance of your organization?


* in Merriam and Bierma (2014). Adult Learning: Linking Theory and Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, pp. 223-224.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Agenda item: Role-play community outreach

Agenda item 8: Use regular role playing and practice in preparation for advocacy work to build board member confidence and effectiveness.


What if I misspeak?
What if they ask a question that I can't answer?
What if I can't remember what I'm "supposed to say?"
What if they say no or, worse, attack me?

These are the kinds of questions that stand between a board member and the donor, service group, or public policymaker who needs to hear your story.

Many board members balk at fulfilling their outreach responsibilities out of fear that they will somehow fail the organization, imagining all the ways in which their attempts at outreach can go wrong. In reality, none of the scenarios above are common, or deadly to outreach, IF we've done our job and provided board members with the tools they need to speak credibly on our behalf.

That support can take many forms. Obviously, board members need quick access to, and working understanding of, information about services, clients served, and other mission-related details. They need to speak knowledgeably and credibly about the work that you do and the impact made in the community.

But they also benefit from being able to try on the ambassador role, practicing what they would say in a variety of scenarios. They need regular role-playing opportunities, both as the person practicing and the audience observing and imagining themselves in the same situation.

Role playing may not be everyone's favorite activity. That seat can be mighty toasty, even in a hypothetical situation surrounded by friends. But it's a reliable way to work with those scenarios where our confidence may be low, before members actually find themselves in front of a potential supporter or opponent. Playing out different kinds of interactions, and being able to talk about what we might do in that same situation, gives board members a chance to practice and to build confidence by meeting even a "worst case" head on.

Make role playing a regular part of several - or all - of your meetings. Include role playing in retreats and training sessions. It's rich, experiential learning that builds board member - and board and organizational - capacity. It need not be excessively time consuming. (And, no, it's not "fluff" distracting from "real work...") But practice, via both direct participation and in observing peers assuming roles, plant a different kind of expectation - of success - and, eventually, a different outcome that benefits the organization.

Here are three examples of ways to build role playing into routine board work:

When discussing projects that require board member outreach (e.g., testifying before city council or state legislature, visiting a prospective donor), include time to practice likely questions and productive responses.

Ask board members to express their worst fears about talking to donors and others about your work - let them lay out their own worst-case scenarios - and spend time acting out two or three of them. Discuss options for responses, ask about what the other party may be thinking as he/she responds in that (perceived negative) way, and analyze how members might be able to address those potential concerns, up front and positively.

Ask committees or work groups to create a scenario related to their responsibility area (e.g., fundraising or advocacy) that sparks board thinking about an issue requiring board discussion. Have committee members play the role of external stakeholders with an interest in the issue and ask other members to take turns engaging those "stakeholders" in productive ways. Make the scenarios real. Stretch members enough to challenge but not break. Be prepared to offer alternative paths to handling the situation in a way that supports your purpose.

Role playing can be a terrific resource for building your board members' confidence and capacity for successful outreach. It can help allay fears and create a vision of the kind of outcomes you want and need in community interactions. How can you begin using this process to engage your board?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Board competency 3: Think critically

This is the third in a 10-part weekly series expanding upon the core nonprofit board competencies that I laid out in a recent post.

Core board competency 3: The willingness to think critically – to accept, analyze, and then discern between divergent sets of information and experiences.


Few things in nonprofit governance are worse than a rubber-stamp board: one that simply accepts at face value whatever is placed in front of it (especially when it comes from the CEO) without serious discussion and analysis of what is being proposed.

Our boards are called to ask and address big, complex questions that move us closer to our vision of the future. Board members are (or should be) recruited in large part for their wisdom, experiences and expertise. If we are not actively engaging the latter to inform the former, we fall short of our governance responsibilties.

Boards must dig deeply - and broadly - in exploring the major issues brought to them. They must be able to draw from different frameworks, experiences and disciplines to understand the full range of impacts and consequences of what is being proposed. They function best when all members are cable of critical analysis and have members who actively accept that role. They need to acknowledge critical questioning as an essential part of the work, not a roadblock between them and an easy vote.

I shared an overview of critical thinking skills in a post published earlier this year. In naming critical thinking and analysis as one of my core nonprofit board competencies, I hope to recognize its essential role in the kind of leadership that we expect - and need - from our governing bodies.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Nonprofit governance: Questions for reboot

If nonprofit governing bodies didn't already exist and you wanted to invent them, what questions would you ask? What would they look like in the end?

I encountered a parallel version of those questions while reading a new book on higher education recently. It prompted me to think about the elusive "better way" of governing that always is on my mind. As a sector, we seem to be quite dissatisfied with the current state of nonprofit boards; but there is nothing resembling consensus about what the alternative would look like.

Because I believe in the power of a good question, I'm resisting my initial urge to answer the two that opened this post directly. Instead, this morning I offer the kinds of questions that would lead us, collectively, to a satisfying and perhaps more effective definition of nonprofit governance.

Here are those questions:

  • What should our governing bodies do that no one else can do for us?
  • What kinds of leadership do we need from these groups? What does that leadership look like?
  • What kinds of personal attributes do we require of all who serve?
  • What specific kinds of contributions do we need these groups to make?
  • To whom are these bodies accountable?
  • What kinds of connections/responsibilities do these groups need to those who whom they are accountable?
  • How will these bodies define success? 
  • How will we acknowledge these groups' collective contributions? The individuals' contributions?
  • How will we support these bodies' success?

While the questions above are hardly all-inclusive, they offer a good foundation for conversations leading to a rethinking of nonprofit governance and the bodies that provide that specific kind of leadership.

When all is said and done, we may emerge with something closely resembling our current boards. We might see something resembling Community Engagement Governance, which takes a broader and more collaborative approach to providing nonprofit and community leadership. We may come up with something altogether different.

But we start with questions that require us to do a better job of envisioning and articulating the kind of leadership that our communities - and, by extension, our organizations - ultimately need.


Friday, February 14, 2014

Agenda item: Watch your (board) process

Agenda item 7: Assign rotating peer process watchers.


How do we increase board member awareness of the actions and attitudes that foster productive work in meetings? How do we help them recognize those that hinder collegiality and stifle deliberations? How do we help ensure that everyone is encouraged and expected to participate in governance?

Ask them to take turns serving as meeting process watchers.

Board leaders - and boards - benefit from a little help monitoring the ways in which interactions are unfolding: watching body language, identifying signs of trouble before they become problematic, and drawing out silent members.  Assigning individual members to pay particular attention to boardroom dynamics - act as process watchers - provides that assistance. It facilitates intervention in the moment, so that adjustments can be made in a timely manner and the board can stay on track.

Sharing that responsibility, by asking each board member to take a turn, offers other benefits for the individual and the board itself. Because they are asked to observe how people are interacting, they become more cognizant of group dynamics that are productive - or not. We become more aware of our own actions and attitudes that feed and challenge board performance, giving us the opportunity to change the latter.

So what does it mean to watch group process? In an article titled "Meeting Facilitation: The No-Magic Method," Berit Lakey offers an excellent overview of the kinds of markers to which a person serving in this role might be attuned:

  1. What was the general atmosphere in which the group worked? relaxed? tense?
  2. How were the decisions made?
  3. If there was any conflict, how was it handled?
  4. Did everybody participate? Were there procedures that encouraged participation?
  5. How well did the group members listen to each other?
  6. Were there recognized leaders within the group?
  7. How did the group interact with this facilitator?
  8. Were there differences between male and female participation?

Sharing what one observes with the board president and the board provides a layer of information that often is invisible, especially in the moment, that deeply impacts outcomes. It gives the board the opportunity to choose a better way of working, leading both to better decisions and more satisfying service for members.

In the same article, Lakey offers a twist to what I would have considered to be part of a process-watching role: a "vibes watcher" that pays particular attention to the non-verbals in the room:

  • Body languages are people yawning/ dozing, sagging, fidgeting, leaving?
  • Facial expressions; are people alert or "not there", looking upset, staring off into space?
  • Side conversations: are they distracting to the facilitator or to the group?
  • People interrupting each other.

Lakey acknowledges the interpretive challenge that comes with observing non-verbal behavior: we can't know for sure whether our read is accurate. But watching, noting and asking gives us a chance to raise the questions that can address issues that members may not be able (or willing) to articulate in without encouragement. It reduces the risk that those underlying issues will fester and impede group deliberations.

I remain convinced that many of our bigger board challenges lie not in the content of the work, but in the interpersonal quirks and conflicts that emerge when people gather. (See my "Board Dynamics" page for other posts on this topic.) What is your reaction to the possibility of creating a process watcher? What might that person help  you identify and address in a timely manner? What potential push back might you encounter if you proposed it? Is it worth considering?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Board competency 2: Think strategically

This is the second in a 10-part weekly series expanding upon the core nonprofit board competencies that I laid out in a recent post.


Core board competency 2: The ability to think strategically and engage in future-oriented discussions and planning.


The future is the primary domain of nonprofit governance.

Certainly, the board has responsibilities tied to the here and now. But in the end, its ultimate accountability to the community is in defining a compelling vision and mission and ensuring that the organization has the capacity to move toward them. It's their job. Boards need members who feel comfortable living and working there.

Boards need members who:

  • Have the capacity to envision the future it has defined.
  • Can think critically, evaluate, and select from potentially divergent paths.
  • Ask "What if.." and other strategically-focused questions to mine options and gather data needed for decision making.
  • Aren't afraid to challenge assumptions and ask the tough questions - even when it feels unpleasant to do so.
  • Can define and develop a path from A to B (even if the board isn't literally developing the plan - the board can see next steps emerging).
  • Embrace and embed strategic thinking into board work.
  • Are independent minded.
  • Always reading, listening, watching and asking, "What can we learn/apply from this?"

As I refine my understanding of the importance of strategic thinking in the boardroom, I draw inspiration from the authors of the work, Governance as Leadership. These quotes on the strategic mode help to provide the context for what I am describing here:

"Strategic thinking should not be treated as heavy artillery or a last-ditch measure deployed only at times of crisis. It is, in fact, most useful when honed through continuous use." (p. 64)
"The role of the board shifts, in a way, from brawn to brains, from the power of the board's oversight...to the power of the board's ideas." (p. 65)
and
"In Type II (Strategic) governance, 'What do you think?,' when asked of trustees, does not mean 'What do you think of management's plans?' It really means 'What is your thinking about the organization's future?" (p. 65)

How do we raise strategic thinking/governance to the essential place that it deserves in the nonprofit boardroom? I'm interested in hearing your thoughts.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Blogiversary: 7 years of nonprofit posting

It all started with a class project...

I launched the Laramie Board Learning Project seven years ago today, as part of a doctoral course requirement. We explored several tools that foster social learning in that University of Wyoming class (though I refused to try Twitter - a fact that might surprise the many friends I've made there). As a former journalist, the notion of launching a blog that I could continue beyond the semester was an attractive one.

I even had the perfect audience: Laramie's nonprofit boards. I envisioned this site as the centerpiece of a broader, community-wide effort to support our local boards. Vision didn't quite meet reality (My one regret in seven years: My choice of name for the site). But what has unfolded to date has far exceeded even the "grand" future I saw as I clicked "publish" on the first post.

My ultimate goal remains the same as it did in 2007: to provide an accessible resource for nonprofit board members. My promise continues to be to (a) address issues and questions that people serving in governance roles face every day and (b) to respect board members as smart, dedicated community leaders.

Those goals are deeply personal. As a board member, I chafe at resources that talk down to me as though I'm an idiot.  I also resent the endless parade of "how to get around/survive the hopeless pack of losers" articles, books and other resources targeting nonprofit executive directors.

I've always started with the assumption that my readers are smart, talented, and driven to make a difference.  Recently, I've found myself taking more of an advocacy role: pushing back when necessary against assumptions and attitudes that insult board members and contradict the community leader role that the sector claims it demands from those who answer the call to serve.

I try for a balance between the practical and what I call the aspirational: between the how-tos that are a legitimate part of board development and the context for understanding what nonprofit governance really is and how it is different from what most boards are doing in meetings. I understand the legitimate learning needs that board members have, even as I also understand there is so much that most board members don't know about the responsibilities they've accepted.

Over time, this blog's call to stretch board members has increased. There are two reasons for this. One, nonprofit governance is far more than the narrow range of oversight roles that dominate too many board meeting agendas. So much of what is needed from our boards is invisible and untouched, and our nonprofits suffer as a result. Two, most of us sign on for board service because we want to make a difference. We want to contribute our time, talent, connections, and more in service to a better future for our communities. But the typical board experience doesn't facilitate that.

A growing theme here over the last year or so has been "Give us a high bar, and we'll rise to those expectations." Most board members I know want to be challenged. We want to ask big, expansive questions about the future and explore pathways that bring us closer to it. We want to contribute our considerable expertise and life experiences in finding the answers. We want to work together to create something bigger and better than we could do alone.

As I look to year eight and beyond, I recommit to these purposes and remain open and responsive to whatever needs emerge along the way. I will continue to find ways to translate the best governance research into practitioner-friendly, actionable ideas. I will continue to look for interesting and occasionally unconventional connections from other disciplines - especially adult learning - to stretch our thinking about nonprofit governance and the boards that accept that responsibility. And I will continue to look forward to engaging readers and colleagues, here or elsewhere, to expand the conversation and definition of what we really need from the community leaders who give so much in board service.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Agenda item: Burning board question

Agenda item 6: Institute a "burning board question" into each agenda.


This week's nonprofit governance agenda item legitimately qualifies as a "change just one item on your agenda and change your board's destiny" step: Build a "burning board question" into the group's work.

The focus of this question can be almost anything governance-related: e.g., a query about some aspect of your mission, on outreach work that the board of which the board can be part, public policy changes that impact your work, planning for your coming capital campaign.

What is most important about this question is that it should:

  • Draw member attention to a higher-level governance responsibility
  • Require some research - they must explore, engage others as they gather data, and otherwise come to the meeting prepared and knowledgeable
  • Invite a range of perspectives - no quick, easy yes/no response should be possible
  • Engage board member passions and brains - they should see why this matters and how their participation, and even leadership, is important to the organization and its community.

The questions can come  from anyone and anywhere. But they gain some power when board members themselves identify what needs to be asked and when they lead the process for exploring the answers.

This one covers the first item on on my 2014 nonprofit governance agenda. Generative questions and conversations are one of the core components of the Governance as Leadership framework - and one of the biggest departures from the typical mode of board work. Simply engaging members in substantive discussions about higher-level, future-oriented promises major impact. They focus board attention on legitimate governance responsibilities. They connect board members' contributions of time and talent to issues and opportunities that matter to the organization's success in the future. And they have the potential to reach and engage members where they are motivated.

A reminder: Creating space for this work is not taking time away from "real work." It is part of the real work of governance. 

Monday, February 3, 2014

Competency 1: Understanding the management vs governance difference

Today, I launch a weekly series expanding upon the core nonprofit board/governance competencies that I outlined in my last post. Each Wednesday, for the next 10 weeks, I will offer additional insights into one of the competencies.

Core board competency 1: The capacity to recognize and respect the functional differences between management and governance.


One of the bigger challenges for many nonprofit board members is remembering that their ultimate responsibility is governance, not management of day-to-day activities. Understanding and respecting the difference is critical to boards focusing their energies.

There are at least a couple of reasons that boards can sometimes teeter over the management edge. 

One, we haven't done a great job of articulating what nonprofit governance really involves. When their real responsibilities are unclear, smart adults will turn naturally to what they know best, e.g., the kinds of management roles that they assume in their daily work lives. What clarity we do have has tended to fall on monitoring roles, which frequently translates into obsessing about every line item in the financial statement (and the slippery slope into queries about day-to-day activities).

Two, management functions usually are more visible than governance roles. We can see "management" and respond, whereas governance invites more abstract kinds of thinking. When we dip our toes into the management pool, we often can identify "evidence" that we are doing our job. Well, not our job....

Now, I realize that the line between management and governance can be a fine one. I also realize that, for some smaller and/or newer nonprofits, there may be literally no one else to perform management functions.

But remember: governance is the sole responsibility of the board. If we're so distracted by the day to day that we neglect the future, we are neglecting our ultimate purpose - and the future of our organizations and our community.

Core nonprofit board competencies: My list of essential qualities to govern effectively


 Purchased from Bigstock Photo

What are the core competencies required for nonprofit boards to lead and govern effectively?

A good friend posed that question to me early last month, as part of an exciting new project that promises to be a major gift to the sector. I was happy to oblige, in part, because I support that endeavor and my friend. But I also accepted the challenge because it felt like a new way to expand my own thinking about what we need to understand and enact effective nonprofit governance.

My list evolved over the month, as I refined both my definition of "competency" and my list of board essentials. What I'm sharing today today represents that synthesis, ready for public sharing and discussion. Here are my "10 core nonprofit board/governance competencies:"

  1. The capacity to recognize and respect the functional differences between management and governance.
  2. The ability to think strategically and engage in future-oriented discussion and planning.
  3. The willingness to think critically – to accept, analyze, and then discern between divergent sets of information and experiences.
  4. The capacity to engage respectfully with a wide range of personalities and worldviews.
  5. The capacity and willingness to seek out information, ask provocative questions, and use the result of that learning to drive thoughtful decision making (intellectual curiosity).
  6. The capacity to understand and accept the fiduciary/accountability responsibilities of governance.
  7. The capacity to advocate for your mission and programs with others, from one-on-one to group settings.
  8. The willingness to share your knowledge/expertise/experience to expand the board’s collective capacity to govern.
  9. The willingness to engage as part of a leadership team.
  10. The willingness to set aside personal agendas for the greater good.

I see these as essential competencies that each board member should bring to the table. I recognize that we humans have different strengths and our own "personal growth areas." But one of the reasons for choosing these 10 criteria is their individual and collective representation of what we can expect from smart, effective community leaders. None of these should be unreasonable reaches for anyone we're inviting to serve on one of our boards.

I tried to stay away from criteria that might be too specific, or lists of skill sets, given that different boards (and their missions) will have varying needs at any point in their organizational lives. You will see some overlap with my previous "dispositions of nonprofit governance" list. Their roles are complementary but ultimately not identical. The former represent more individual qualities. The latter offer core capacities and ways of working that board members should have.

There's a reason the list is committed to computer hard drive and not stone tablet - as right as they feel to me at the moment, they ultimately represent my interpretation at this point in time. They necessarily remain a work in progress. I'm interested in your feedback on the competencies that I have outlined here, and on the basic premise of this kind of framing.

As I prepare to click "publish," these criteria beg for expansion. I'll launch a brief, 10-week series on Wednesday doing just that.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Agenda item: Recruit for intellectual curiosity

Agenda item 5: Add "intellectual curiosity" to your board recruitment criteria. 


When the time comes to recruit new members, most of our boards have a list of criteria at the ready. Many of those criteria come from a somewhat predictable set of needs, including demographics, expertise and community connections.

Obviously, we need a wide range of knowledge, skills and perspectives to govern effectively. But we need other capacities that may not be as easy to identify, at least immediately.

One of those capacities is intellectual curiosity.

Nonprofit boards need individuals who don't simply accept information presented to them at face value. They need individuals who will dig deeper than the superficial explanation, and who will look for more than the obvious potential outcomes.

Boards' capacity to lead grows when they have members who will know how do draw from a broad range of knowledge sources, who'll ask probing questions, who'll explore on their own (and share their findings with the group) when more information is needed.

We need board members who ask "what if...," who ask "why...," and who ask "what else do we need to know to decide..."

We need more intellectual curiosity in our boardrooms.

Unlike other types of criteria, curiosity isn't something we can recognize instantly when a person walks into the door. It's also not (typically) a line on an individual's resume. What kinds of questions might we ask in the recruitment process to get at least a sneak peek into one's curiosity potential? I'm interested in your feedback on this; but in the meantime, here are a few examples of questions that I might pose in an interview:

  • When you have a problem to solve, what is your first step toward finding a solution?
  • Where do you find your greatest inspirations, professionally? Personally?
  • When you want to learn about something, where do you turn to first?
  • What do you wish you understood better about (our organization's mission area)?
  • What about (our mission area) intrigues you most? 
  • What's an example of a burning question or sticky situation that you've not quite resolved yet? How have you attempted to find answers so far, and why do you think you've not yet found the answer?

I'd love to hear both your thoughts about intellectual curiosity as a board criterion and your ideas for questions that might help us gauge a person's potential to bring it to the table.  Please share via a comment to this post.