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?