Bringing the smartest, most experienced people onto our boards is only the first step toward accessing the knowledge that we need to lead our organizations. We also need to help them govern in socially competent ways.
Etienne Wenger-Trayner (recently married) ended up providing the key to understanding the story that unfolded in my case study on board learning. This quote provides context for the broader social learning phenomenon that I witnessed and all that I have come to know since that research concluded.
Like most of your boards, the governing body I studied was filled with deep expertise in both the mission area and several management functions (e.g., fundraising, financial services, legal). What made this board exemplary was the way members created collective intelligence and applied that to their governance responsibilities.
Our experts on the board - everyone, really - need at least the following things:
- Context for understanding the unique nature of nonprofits generally and our mission environment specifically. Transferring their specific knowledge and experience to a nonprofit setting is not always an automatic process. They may need assistance/information to better understand how to translate their general expertise to a nonprofit setting.
- Respect for their knowledge and willingness to share it in a governance setting. These are significant gifts that cannot be wasted or discounted.
- Opportunities, formal and informal, for sharing that knowledge with peers and organizational staff. I'll describe these in more detail when I write about my research highlights, but I can say that I saw excellent examples of both board experts anticipating board questions and translating information to address them and providing peer education in a responsibility area.
- Respect for both the expert knower and the "naive" questioner. This was one of the bigger "aha" moments in my data. Boards need both the expert who understands and can advise and other members who are willing to say "I'm not clear about... Can you explain/clarify that for me?"
- Clarity about why they are being asked to serve, before they commit. This may seem obvious, but it may not always be so clear. This also ended up being a second-tier takeaway from my research: because board members knew what they specifically were expected to contribute during the member recruitment process, they entered service fully prepared to step up.