Monday, May 4, 2015

Governance toolbox: What happens in the nonprofit boardroom...

This week's saved links carry a nice "what happens in the boardroom..." kind of theme.

Distinguishing a board's steering and rowing work -- I may have shared this William Ryan article when it first was published. But since the topic is evergreen, and it's one on my mind as I cover it this weekend in a local training event, it's worth the risk of potential duplication. The scenario where a nonprofit board can simply sit back and govern is so rare, it's downright mythical. The reality for most of us is that board work is a mix of steering (governance) and rowing (some form of volunteer, service, frontline work). Being able to distinguish between the two, acknowledge the role that each play - and not let the steering component get lost in the shuffle - is critically important. Ryan's Nonprofit Quarterly article does a fantastic job of making the distinctions. I found his "substitution test" to be incredibly helpful. You must have this conversation with your board. Trust me. Do it.

Enhance attrition or thank and release? Firing lousy board members -- This  NPQ  article offers some frank counsel on how to handle a troublesome situation for too many boards: coming to terms with the fact that some board members either aren't the right fit for us. I'm not one to advocate for cutting people loose without giving them a chance to understand how their performance falls short of expectations (or stirs the pot in unproductive ways). But sometimes, we get to a point where it's simply more appropriate to cut ties. Simone Joyaux's post addresses both topics - how to handle that truly bad fit and how to avoid it in the first place.  (Hint: it's not in the ever-popular "any live body will do" approach to recruitment.)

Outsmart your own biases -- The opening paragraphs of this Harvard Business Review article may not appear germane to nonprofit boards, but keep reading. You'll find such gems as

You might trust your intuition, which has guided you well in the past, and send her on her way. That’s what most executives say they’d do when we pose this scenario in our classes on managerial decision making. The problem is, unless you occasionally go against your gut, you haven’t put your intuition to the test.

We're smart people. We likely were recruited because we're smart - and wise - people usually well-served by their intuition. But it's all too easy to fall into a familiar trap, especially in long meetings held at the end of our work days, of not challenging ourselves and each other around sticky and uncertain topics. I'm also terribly interested in the "premortem" notion (note the link to a separate article on that topic). I'm not sure I'd always use it to predict failures - we need to spend more of our time envisioning and moving toward the better future we exist to create. But it feels like a potentially useful tool, however focused, for testing assumptions and discussing different scenarios based in the decisions we are about to make.

Groupthink in the boardroom -- I've found many of the sector's governing bodies to be particularly ripe for this group dynamics challenge, for at least a couple of reasons. One, our attempts to diversify often fall short (if they exist at all), which leaves us with a room full of people who largely think and act just like us, from backgrounds very similar to ours. (In my hometown, it's usually white, middle-class, college-educated professional women with ties to the local university.) Two, we're coming to this work as volunteers. We want to make a difference.  We want to interact with others with the same leadership and service aspirations. We want to have fun - or at least feel good about all those hours we're giving to the work. Without conscious, collective commitment to stretching boundaries and pushing each other, and with out leadership who will hold us accountable for that, it's too easy to sit back and not rock the boat. Sometimes, that boat needs to be rocked. Occasionally, it needs to be flipped over. If we're all too busy making nice and applauding each other's "brilliant" ideas that we end up trapped in the groupthink quagmire. This excellent article by Leading Governance covers the topic well. Share it with your board and use it as a focal point for ongoing conversation about avoiding this tricky group challenge.

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