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, 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.