Monday, July 13, 2015

Effective nonprofit board training: Creating high-quality, realistic formal learning

As much as I try to make a case for expanded thinking of board development as more than formal learning experiences, the fact is that training events have a legitimate role in that process.

I've been offering board training for longer than I can remember. (Literally. I cannot remember when I began creating and leading board workshops, or on what topics.) Whenever that work began, I'm sure I succumbed to every stereotypical idea about how one "trains," right down to the wordy PowerPoint slides and long lectures from them.

Obviously, I now know better. I'm perpetually working to transform the ways in which I provide the learning experiences that my clients want and need, to increase their impact and effectiveness. But I occasionally encounter skepticism, because what I describe as my proposed approach to getting boards to where they say they need to be often appears different than what they are used to seeing in a "training" environment.

Part of that is my "learned the hard way" acknowledgment that expectations for a two-, four- or eight-hour session are not always realistic or appropriate. (More in a moment.) Also at play is my own lingering temptation to share "everything they need to know" about the topic at hand. But I've also come to understand and incorporate the factors that facilitate deeper, more meaningful adult learning.

Other adult educators and consultants will undoubtedly have their own approaches to providing board training and similar learning experiences. But today, I'd like to share a peek inside my evolving approach to these assignments. In doing so, I hope that I might help readers launch conversations that ultimately lead the improved board performance.

Realistic agenda expectations.  This lays the foundation for the session's success potential. There can be multiple layers to this one, two of them most common in my conversations with prospective training clients.

The first is not starting from the premise that "My board is broken. Fix it." Your board is not broken. Members may have gaps in their understanding of expectations (and maybe between their expectations and yours). They may find consistent, positive motivation hard to sustain. But they are not broken. My job is to help you find the spark that moves them closer to the high performance you expect and that they want to provide.

The second is a reality check - for both of us - about what we can reasonably and effectively accomplish in the time frame you are setting aside. Take your list of what you want us to cover in this session and take out one big topic. Maybe two. What's left usually is a more realistic agenda for most of the sessions I'm asked to lead. This one's a lingering challenge for me, because I want to accommodate all of your perceived board challenges. But I also know that filling their brains with a lot of information, on several topics, in a short time frame will yield little meaningful understanding or behavior change. Let's focus on a more narrow set of questions - or one question - and dig deeply. That's how capacity building and leadership development happen.

Inquiry basis. Speaking of questions... Yes, while a limited lecture/presentation component may fulfill some of your board's learning needs, our time will be better spent if we build our work around questions of impact and performance. The agenda I create for you will include more questions than predetermined answers. We may emerge with a collective definition of some of the solutions you seek. We may emerge with new sets of questions for you to ask as a group. More to the point, your board will leave with a greater understanding of the context in which they are leading and working, and a fuller toolbox of skills and resources from which to respond.

Come prepared: some pre-training homework. Going into our time together, the agenda that your board receives from me will include the broader questions we will explore together. I do that to prime the learning pump. I expect members to reflect on those questions in advance and come prepared for multi-layered conversation and exploration about topics that matter to their board.

"Homework" also may include accessing a small list of carefully selected resources - usually print articles and/or brief videos - that will inform our thinking about the subject(s) of our time together. That frees me up to facilitate those meaningful discussions and respond to specific examples and concerns rather than lecture. We can put our time to better use, actively applying ideas from those resources to your real-life board learning needs.

Active individual and group work. I'm an introvert who hates hokey icebreakers almost as much as I hate team-building exercises. But I also value the multiplying power generated in groups of similarly committed community servants who share a common vision of the future and their role(s) in making it happen. That comes, in part, from getting to know each other, understanding what individual members bring to the table, finding places to value those gifts and put them to work, and actively creating a common path to moving forward together.

The fact is, we can accomplish more together than we can separately. We magnify that potential when we create - and own - the processes that we undertake together. A legitimate purpose of any training session is helping boards find that common vision and a space where they can contribute in appropriate and powerful ways.

Closure: reflection and next steps. We will close the session with a process that brings appropriate closure to our time together. I believe in the power of reflection in the learning process. I also believe in identifying next steps and assigning accountability for moving those next steps forward. We will work to find a balance between the significant paths that emerge and the smaller, board-owned steps that have the power to actually begin moving forward along them.

Resources for follow-up. Because I can't help myself, I always have endless resources that cover everything I wanted to tell you but couldn't squeeze into our time together. My gift to you, and my way of controlling that "drinking from a fire hose" temptation, usually will include an online handout or Pinterest board covering our topic in greater detail.

I decided to share this peek into my approach, not to pose it as the be all, end all, magic training formula.  Rather, I wanted to offer an informed perspective on the kinds of processes that actually facilitate learning for the adults who serve on our boards.

What is the right mix for many of the boards I work with may not be exactly right for your specific needs. I certainly adapt to the unique needs of each board with whom I work. Instead, I offer this as a resource and potentially useful reference for when you're preparing to identify a training need and when you're working with someone like me to address that need.

  • How does the person you're about to hire construct training events? 
  • What is his/her philosophy of adult learning? Is there space for reflection and inquiry? 
  • How will he/she guide you from where you are now as a board to a position poised toward where you want to be? 
  • Does the approach proposed feel like an appropriate stretch for your board? 
  • Does he/she challenge you to focus your time on a realistic set of topics (or one topic) with time for depth of exploration, or does that person promise to squeeze in everything you think you want to cover whether or not it fits?

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