Thursday, April 30, 2015

Governance toolbox: April potpourri

I was so busy sharing great videos last week that I missed posting this month's potpourri opportunity. Since I've been gathering several interesting resources that don't quite form a theme lately, and I want to keep up the monthly tradition, the April toolbox comes a day early.

Change management vs. change leadership: What's the difference? --  John Kotter's work has long influenced my thinking and teaching on leadership and management. Finding this brief video in my Twitter feed this week was a special treat. I couldn't help thinking about the board's ultimate governance role exemplified in Kotter's definition of change leadership. That doesn't mean that others aren't part of the process. It doesn't mean that the board can be oblivious to the legitimate change management work that needs to happen. But the way he distinguishes between the two feels like a helpful way of highlighting where a nonprofit board's focus should be.

Principles and practices for nonprofit excellence in Colorado -- The Colorado Nonprofit Association has created a comprehensive resource for the state's sector that also serves as a model for other states and/or umbrella organizations. I won't pretend to be in a position of evaluating every, single item in this document. But it's easy to endorse the premise of what the CNA accomplished here: establishing some semblance of collective understanding of expectations, best practices, bottom lines, etc. It's something sorely needed in the sector - especially around governance - even if we'll never reach complete consensus on what that ideal should look like.

Seven ways curious leaders succeed -- Curiosity can equal the difference between perfectly adequate board performance and visionary leadership. This Leadership Freak post makes a great case for recognizing the power that curiosity brings to the process and the roles that leaders can play in fostering a culture where it can thrive. Share this post with your board. Share it with your board leaders. Talk about how you all can spark curiosity in your boardroom discussions - and how to value what it brings to your work.

7 ways to reach bull-headed teammates -- Maybe this should have been a "Leadership Freak"-themed toolbox... (My list of saved possibilities from that site is surprisingly long.) I'm including this one because it offers succinct, practical advice for dealing with one of the more problematic aspects of team leadership. As with all of Dan's posts, it's chock-full of straightforward tactics for addressing those individuals who dig in their heels, disrupt process and generally make life harder and more unpleasant for all. His counsel is simultaneously to the point and respectful of the person behind the challenge. Always welcome in group work.

Behavior counts: Putting your nonprofit board on a positive path -- I'm not sure there is any one element of Gary Kelsey's post that sticks out as more noteworthy than the others. But the collective package of advice for creating a strong board offers a great overview that I could see sharing as part of my effective governance introduction resources.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Changing our nonprofit boards? Turn the process over to those who govern

"It is often said that people do not like change, but in reality what they don't like is change imposed upon them."
-- Paul Matthews

Our nonprofit boards consistently fall short of our expectations for them. They must change. How do we get them to change? Why won't they change?

Those are familiar refrains in many corners of the sector: whatever our boards are doing, it isn't enough, and it isn't what we need them to do for us. We may differ in our sense of urgency. We may differ in our conviction about what needs to change. But the sense that boards need to change - now - is a strong one.

Here's a (multi-part) question, inspired by the Paul Matthews quote above: Have "we" actually asked our boards what they want to change? What they want to do better? What they need to feel fulfilled and satisfied with their leadership?

Or do we sit around, gripe about their failures, and call in a trainer to magically fix what we have determined to be their biggest challenges?

I'm betting the latter is far more common than the former.

As an adult educator, Matthews' quote didn't surprise me. It's good, basic adult learning theory. We need context, about problems that are real to us,  when the knowledge is germane to our interests and problems.  Knowing that, and knowing that mandated training has limited impact anyway, what if we take a different approach to board development?  While I've been thinking about this for what seems like forever, what follows is a very much evolving vision of board development as a board-driven, board-accountable process.

First, engage members in a conversation identifying the big, burning, board questions that they need to be asking in the next year. Where will their time, talent, and passion be best spent to not only keep the doors open but more you close to fulfilling your mission? Where will they lead?

Second, ask board members about their learning and performance needs to answer those questions. What do they need to know, and do, to govern better and more effectively? Certainly, our governing bodies may have some blind spots and could use some help identifying areas for growth. But we're not dummies. We're also human. Board ownership of our own learning and performance needs increases accountability and commitment to seeing them through.

Institutionalize this process by establishing annual board learning and performance goals.  Give them the same respect, accountability, and agenda time as the other goals they set for themselves. Recognize them as priorities that fuel the rest of the board's work.

Embedding board development in governance work, and valuing it as a critical part of governance, takes a big step toward creating a culture of learning that holds optimal performance as a  highest priority. Sustaining that culture requires, at minimum:

  • Curiosity
  • Clarity of purpose
  • Collective, peer accountability for performance
  • Pride in accomplishment of our governance/leadership responsibilities

It becomes a natural part of the way we work, rather than a tedious task someone imposes upon us.

Board-driven learning and performance not only require board-identified goals but also peer-driven mechanisms for advancing and supporting them. At the center of that is a governance committee that assumes responsibility for the health and success of the board and its individual members. This committee should be charged with leading efforts to build performance capacity (more than simply "learning") and offering activities, resources, and agenda space for this work. This committee should take responsibility for developing, and using, peer expertise to meet the governance needs of the organization.

Accountability mechanisms need to be created to ensure that this work is taking place and that it receives the attention it deserves. Let's face it, it would be easy to set aside board development initiatives for more "urgent" matters before the board. When the board sets learning and performance goals, it also needs to set measures for evaluation. I wouldn't wait until the end of the year to look back and see the board has succeeded or failed. Set quarterly goals and check-ins to ensure that this work doesn't get lost in the shuffle.

Another important part of the process is creating space within the routine work of the board for learning and development (and recognizing the learning that already is taking place). Connect it to capacity building and to other board responsibilities. Don't confine it to special events on a Saturday. Recognize that this, too, is real work that is worthy of time and effort.

Look for ways for individual members to:

  • Identify the expertise, skills, etc., that they can contribute toward overall board learning and performance and
  • Have opportunities to share those gifts with their fellow members, in or outside of regular meetings.

If we really want our boards to change, they need to (a) own the process and (b) have the supportive culture and infrastructure to succeed in making it. I've outlined what I consider to be the essential elements of facilitating that process - not all-inclusive, but the basics for making that possible.

I welcome your thoughts, your additions, and your questions, as they help not only me but all of us extend our thinking about how we really build the power and effectiveness of our volunteer nonprofit leaders.

NOTE: As I advance the "Building Environments for Board Learning and Leadership" theme, I'm creating sets of resources for readers who are interested in exploring the topic on their own. One is a new Pinterest board, devoted to posts that address this theme. A set of bookmarks also will continue to grow with the series. At the moment, those resource lists are predictably small, but they will expand over time. For more general resources on both learning environments and performance support, visit my Pinterest board dedicated to those topics.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sources of nonprofit board chair preparation: Sneak peek from ANM research

Hey, I know that research!

Shhhh. The research team behind the Alliance for Nonprofit Management board chairs survey still is in "analysis" mode. (Believe me, I'm chomping at the bit for the first moment I can officially share the headlines here.). Working through the questions, identifying the findings that are most illuminating and critically important to practice, and developing clarity about what can and can't be said extrapolated from the data has been a long and careful process. There is much to learn and share, in appropriate and accurate ways.

I'll admit to having itchy keyboard fingers as I've reviewed and reflected on our findings. They're still itching. But since two of my ANM research partners, Mary Hiland and Mike Burns, presented highlights at last week's University of Missouri-Kansas City governance conference - and since my Twitter friend, Sarah Mackey, shared the slide above with the world - I'm succumbing to temptation, sharing both the tweet and my thoughts about it.

The photo may be hard to read for some, so let me reiterate the text here:

Board Chair Preparations

Do board chairs prepare for their role? If so, how?
  • Formally - not very much - 50% took no action
  • Informally - found helpful:
  • observing prior board chair (70%)
  • CEO (58%)
  • chairing a board committee (82%)
  • chairing another nonprofit (51%)

"Scholar Me" must be careful not to make any inferences beyond what the data offer. When I am in that mode, I will be careful to report as far as the survey allows and not a step more. "Practitioner Me," however, has an observation or two that I will frame here as "things to consider/potential red flags" from the major data gifts that this survey offers the sector. As I review this information again this morning, here are the "things to consider" that beg to be shared.

Half of the board chairs completing the survey report taking no formal action to prepare. Zero. Zip. Nada. We don't know why (part of the "scholarly" stretches I can't make.). Did they not have access to formal leadership development resources? Not know where to look? Not believe they needed it? Not sure. But the fact is, they had no formal preparation for this significant responsibility.

"Helpful" informal preparation fell into two themes: a person and an experience. Highest of all was chairing a board committee (82 percent). Now you know one of the reasons why I've stepped up writing about board committees. (The other: the never-ending stream of committee-focused queries in searches leading to this site.) Next is observing a/the prior board chair (70 percent). Bring up the top-four rear are the CEO (58 percent) and chairing another nonprofit (51 percent).

Well, howdy. You know I recognize the role and value of experiential learning in nonprofit board development. You know that board committees really can serve as rich learning laboratories - and, apparently, leadership development mechanisms. You know that I push to recognize the value of supportive relationships, including the critical leadership collaboration with the CEO.

But here's the elephant herd in the room:

  • What if those committee experiences are less than optimal?
  • What if that board chair you're observing stumbles or simply fails to lead?
  • What if he/she has no firm grasp on what it means to govern and, most important, how to lead a board in those essential responsibilities?
  • What if the CEO doesn't understand what governance looks like, either - or worse, finds that set of responsibilities inconvenient?
  • What if that previous board chair experience was in a less-than-high-performing governance setting?

We don't know. If we could have asked all the questions necessary to provide a more definitive picture, those survey takers would still be at their computers. But those of us in the field - and serving on nonprofit boards in our communities - can use the information they shared in their survey responses to ask pointed questions. We can draw from the data to ask ourselves: how would we respond to these questions? What are our areas of strength in preparing and supporting our board chairs? Where are the potential trouble spots, with what impact on our boards' overall effectiveness?  What can we do to ensure that our board chairs have the greatest support possible, leading into the job and continuing through their service?

I'll also continue to ask myself, and you, a related set of questions - about how we continue to raise the bar and the level of support for nonprofit boards, how we raise the visibility and the collective understanding of what governance really means. I'll continue to push my own thinking about ways to not only enhance existing board development efforts but create entirely new (and more effective) paths to facilitate board learning.

Oh, and stay tuned for further insights from our important national survey. I'm already mentally writing the posts in my head. The moment I can officially share the results of our efforts with the world, you will be the first to know.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Governance toolbox: Respecting our communities - however defined

The fit of two resources saved for sharing with you this week was so perfect, they deserve equal share of the spotlight. I like how naturally their respective topics dovetailed, to highlight the importance of expansive thinking about community and what we need to represent our stakeholders, whoever and wherever they may be.

How do you define community? -- When most of us define our "community," we generally think of the city or town in which we live. If we're a state-level organization, that definition will extend to our state borders. For most of our organizations and our boards, that description is accurate and appropriate. But "community" can translate into other groupings than geography. This excellent post by Nina Simon reminds us of that and invites us to stretch our thinking about how we define our stakeholders. For some readers, "community" may actually be defined by identity (e.g., ethnicity, profession, other life status). For others, "community" is one of affinity: common interests or activities. This probably is perfectly clear to readers already working in those environments. But it serves as a nice reminder to me - and to others who talk about the sector more broadly - that not all mission work comes wrapped in the same packaging.  It also requires boards of organizations serving different types of stakeholder groups to tailor their governance questions and decisions on potentially different kinds of challenges and opportunities.

Diversity -- I'm still reflecting on the points of this excellent video and post by Alice MacGillivray, with whom I share a common interest in communities. I appreciate her broader approach to thinking about, and defining, diversity. It's a mistake to ignore the value of ensuring a rich demographic mix in any room where groups gather to think, explore, discuss, create, and decide. But it's also a mistake to adopt an overly narrow definition. We need diversity in all of its forms when we are collaborating with others. Alice does a beautiful job of articulating that here.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Governance toolbox: The power of video

Two different videos, valuable for very different reasons,  popped out as I was considering what to share this week. Enjoy!

The power of words -- Such a powerful little video. There is so much to love about - and learn from - it that apply to the work that nonprofits, and nonprofit boards, do. Rather than tell you how to share it with your board, I'll share it with you and invite you to (a) actually share it with your board and (b) tell us about the messages you find share-worthy in a comment below.

Why have a board retreat? -- Amy Eisenstein's latest video makes a great case for building in regular space, via a board retreat, for bigger and more expansive thinking required of nonprofit governance. As much as I harp on the need to embed this in the our governance routines, I also acknowledge that setting aside larger blocks of time to really explore, learn, and commit. If the costs associated with scheduling a retreat are problematic, particularly when it comes to engaging a trained facilitator, take note of Amy's Plan B: offering a CEO trade to play that role. While chief executives do not necessarily have the full facilitation skill set, they at least can act as neutral process leaders so that everyone can be fully involved in retreat discussions and activities.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Getting to great nonprofit board dialogue: Four critical, foundational factors

What does it really take to foster great - and productive - dialogue in a nonprofit boardroom?

My friend, Gwen DuBois-Wing, and I offered seven strategies with great potential in the webinar we led last week for the International Policy Governance Association. In my own work, I've been writing, preaching and incorporating every one of the recommendations we shared and know what they can foster.

But one slide in the presentation may be the most important to me, and the one most worthy of sharing here today: the four factors that we identified as the foundation for great boardroom dialogue. Individually, they may be slightly old news here. But collectively, I believe they offer a powerful base worthy of articulation and expansion.

Connections to core board work

Great dialogues focus on weighty and stimulating issues that are the true responsibility of governance. They don't wallow in the here and now, or in management business. They reach toward the future and the impact that their organization's vision and mission aspire to have in the community. When they focus their attention on fiduciary issues, that focus primarily is on questions of inquiry. Rather than rubber-stamping already-written strategic plans (or worse, trying to write one in a retreat), they regularly engage in strategic thinking and conversations.  They are reflective, not reactive.  They value their ultimate responsibility, as advocates for the future and stewards of community resources, above all else. Boards that value great dialogue may tend to today's challenges and crises, because someone must. But they do not let them overrun their agendas (literal and metaphorical) or blind them to their larger governance purpose.

Great questions

Great questions, grounded in that core work, foster great dialogue. They stimulate thinking and demand intellectual curiosity from all members in the room. They are not easily answered in one 30-minute agenda item. Rather, they require time to think, explore, gather feedback, debate, and receive multilayered consideration of the issues at hand. All of them. Board members do not shy away from the tough and the uncomfortable simply because they are tough and uncomfortable. They value and invite creative thinking and the questions that spotlight their stewardship and accountability responsibilities. They ask catalytic questions. They value the wide-ranging, and occasionally bumpy, process that great questions launch. They make smarter, more nuanced, and community-focused decisions with greater impact because they asked great questions.

Access to diverse perspectives

Great dialogue does not happen in a vacuum. It  does not happen when everyone in the room looks, thinks, and acts from the same basic mindsets and backgrounds. Great dialogue happens when diverse perspectives - including diverse ways of thinking, ways of approaching the problems or opportunities represented in the questions - are not just tolerated but welcomed and embraced as essential parts of the process. Diversity is more than demography alone (and the potential risk of tokenism). It's also valuing and seeking diverse types of board capital that bring different strengths and diverse world views that challenge and stretch member thinking on the way to consensus about the right decision for organization and community. It's even the symbolism conveyed to that community, that we represent and reflect on what it values. Their best interests are at heart when the board gathers for dialogue and decision making.


Skillful facilitation by leadership

Finally, the greatest focus, questions, and raw knowledge resources gathered in one room go nowhere without skilled leadership that knows how to harness them into great and productive conversations. It starts with a board leader who understands, accepts, and prepares for the responsibilities that come with the job. Whether presiding over the board as a whole or a committee/task force, this person understands the need to define the group's agenda - literally and figuratively - and the need to focus the group's attention and energy on fulfilling the full scope of responsibilities that come with it. To facilitate great dialogue, this person also needs to be adept at, and courageous enough to, manage respectful and wide-ranging conversation.

That means fostering an environment where all voices are heard and considered, where productive conflict is expected and managed and non-productive conflict is minimized. This person knows how to respectfully rein in those who would dominate and draw out those who are more quiet.  He/she inspires a spirit of exploration. The board leader who who facilitates great dialogue engages board hearts and minds, connecting what matters most to individual members with what matters most to the organization and the community. This is not a job into which one falls. One rises to the occasion of serving.

As the many embedded links confirm, I've written about different aspects of this framing before. But until Gwen and I sat down to develop some clarity about the foundation around which our presentation would be built, I had not actually connected these particular pieces of the board engagement puzzle.

Great boardroom dialogue doesn't just happen. It is the natural result of a careful process of creating and nurturing an environment where it can grow and become part of the sustained governance culture. It isn't solely dependent on personalities that come and go. It becomes, as we said elsewhere in the webinar, part of the DNA of the board. It values rich, meaningful, stimulating inquiry that engages everyone and moves the group as a whole to fulfillment of its ultimate leadership responsibilities.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Governance toolbox: I get by with a little help (from my nonprofit board friends and heroes)

This week's resources come from a few friends and role models who write about, and consult on, nonprofit boards - and one from me.

Courage and discipline for board members -- Have I told you recently how much I love Gayle Gifford's thinking and writing? Her latest post illustrates one of the thousands of reasons why that is the case. Gayle challenged participants in a recent workshop to offer examples of what is possible when board members bring courage and discipline to their work. The responses she received back were right on the mark - and compelling, I trust to everyone in the room. It certainly was to me as a reader. I'd offer the same challenge to readers here who click on that link. Imagine what is possible when we expect out board members to bring both courage and discipline to governance. Share your ideas on her post, too.

Flipping the boardroom for trustee engagement: How and why -- Cathy Trower has been a governance hero of mine since I first cracked open her marvelous book, The Practitioner's Guide to Governance as Leadership. This newest article shares some of her greatest - and most actionable - ideas for empowering boards for governance effectiveness, under the umbrella of one of my favorite recommendations: flipping the board agenda. Cathy addresses that topic directly; and in doing so, she reminds us of some of the biggest challenges to productive engagement, as well as rich and accessible techniques for overcoming them. If we take her advice, we may find that our board members aren't only more productive, they're also more committed and motivated to lead. Imagine that!

Nonprofit executives, board members: What about executive sessions? -- My friend (and research partner) Mary Hiland offers a concise, practical, important discussion of the role of executive sessions. She not only offers a fantastic overview, she addresses some of the factors that can make executive sessions problematic. It is an honest, valuable presentation of a governance function that is sometimes misused and often ignored. I encourage you to bookmark it, share it with your boards, and schedule a discussion on this important topic.

Getting to Great Dialogue -- This link takes you to the slide deck for a webinar that I co-presented this week with Gwen DuBois-Wing, an Ontario-based governance consultant (and friend) who shares my passion for Governance as Leadership. The International Policy Governance Association sponsored the event. If you're a regular reader, you'll see several familiar themes amongst the strategies we discussed. My next post will address a core component of this presentation.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Creating capable nonprofit boards: Systematic impacts on performance

What constitutes capability, and how do we have it? More to the point, how do we know when our nonprofit boards are operating at their full capability?

The more I explore alternative approaches to conceptualizing and implementing capacity building in our governing bodies, the more I'm drawn to the need for creating performance support tools and environments targeting boards' needs.  I've already opened that door a bit as I unfold this year's theme here.

But I'm still trying to grasp what "performance support" might actually look like in terms of meeting the capacity and effectiveness needs of the volunteers who govern our organization. It was in that spirit that I turned to a new-to-me resource, Paul Matthews' Capability at Work: How to Solve the Performance Puzzle,  this weekend.

I'm still reading; but the opening chapters caught my attention, mostly confirming what I've come to believe - that training is a too-easy (non)solution to many of our performance problems.

Matthews tells a story early in the book, about a family encountering a mechanical problem with its car on the way to a football game. They reach a mechanic, who tells them that the fix is easy and quick. There's only one problem, as he discovers: the small, cheap part he needs to make the repair is out of stock in the shop and not available locally. He can special order it - even come to the family's home and fix it for free when it arrives. But he can't help them today. The question: was he capable of resolving the family's current problem?

I must admit that my gut response fit the typical L&D mindset (I'm an adult educator, after all): Of course he's capable. He's an expert mechanic, facing an easy problem. He probably could do it in his sleep. But the reality is that there may be at least two other possible factors to consider. One, the mechanic lacked the part that he needed to do the job (much like some board members lack information or other essential resources to make a decision). Two, that part may have been missing because whatever system the shop had for inventory maintenance broke down at some point (or didn't exist).

Sound familiar?

While we're tempted to slap a training solution on every board issue that we encounter, Matthews shares some of the factors that business improvement expert Alan P. Brache says can be the real sources of performance problems:

  • "A weak strategy
  • "Poorly-designed business processes
  • "The misuse or non-use of technology
  • "Unclear or unwise policies
  • "Inadequate skills
  • "A dysfunctional culture
  • "An incentive system that rewards the wrong performance"

I don't know about you, but I can see a nonprofit board parallel - or direct match - to every, single one of  those factors. Only one - "inadequate skills" - suggests a clear learning gap that needs to be addressed. The rest are primarily systematic, political or cultural issues. That doesn't mean there won't be learning-related components to address. But the primary challenges they present to organizations experiencing them (including nonprofit boards) are not learning challenges.

I know they're only a representative sampling of the factors that can affect how we perform, individually or collectively. I also know that we can tie our board members to their chairs and subject them to endless hours of training and absolutely nothing will change - besides maybe their motivation to serve - if other factors besides a learning gap are behind their less-than-peak performance.

I'm still reading. I'm still exploring the potential of performance support for enhancing board effectiveness. In the meantime, I'm interested in hearing about your experiences and your reactions to what is shared here.

Do you recognize any of these performance challenges in your nonprofit boardroom(s)?

How have you attempted to address them in service to board performance?

With what results?