Monday, July 20, 2015

The big, unasked board development question: Is this really a training problem?

Is your burning board issue a training need or a performance support challenge?

When I saw the topic of last week's #chat2lrn Twitter chat  "Is this a training problem?" - I knew I had to make space to participate. I was glad I did: what unfolded was a discussion that sparked new thinking (and new questions) about how we distinguish between board training and performance needs and how we better address the latter.

I've written about this topic before here. Rather than open with a rehash of that earlier post, I'll instead spotlight some of the tweets from that chat that caught my attention and insert a comment or two on how they affirm or expand my thinking about the training vs. performance question. I also invite you to share your reactions to what is represented in what I am about to share.

I'll start with this one, because it offers an excellent framing for the entire question for me. One, the bottom line is performance improvement: we want our boards to be as effective as possible in fulfilling their governance responsibilities. Two, training by itself  is not automatically "learning," or "performance improvement," even though we often assume that it is. Three, nonprofit board learning is an ongoing process that includes, but is not limited to, formal events. The tech reference could be a throwaway line in the larger point I'm making - except that technology can help us offer some of the performance support that boards really need.

How many times have you - or someone representing your board - uttered something along the lines of "We have a problem. Let's schedule a training." How many times have you gone to someone like me and said, "My board needs help with XYZ. Will you do a training for us?" How many times has that person automatically said, "Sure. When and where?" without probing to see if training really was the right path to addressing your need? (Raises hand. Many, many times.) In some cases, especially when the topic is new to the learners, training may very well be a component of improving board performance. But in many more, it may have no effect on your real issue. We must be open to the very likely possibility that training is not at all the answer to your performance problem.

Patti's right. If it's a matter of skills or basic education, yes, then talk to us about training. But if it's a broader performance or motivation problem, be open to exploring other paths to reaching your desired changes.

Many of the issues underlying the needs expressed in training requests start with a disconnect between expectations and board awareness of those expectations. There still may be training needs. A facilitated formal event may provide an environment where communication that closes the expectations gap can take place (a very common scenario, in my experience). But the bottom-line performance issue may be one of communication that is not solved by training in and of itself.

This may be less of a specific issue for nonprofit boards than the learning audiences that my fellow chatters support, but the potential always exists. If you are not having a somewhat probing conversation about the performance problems you want to change, if the board development professional is quick to offer a pre-fab workshop on "topic ABC,"  your potential for actually effecting that change decreases significantly.

Because many boards are looking for quick - if not easy - answers to their perceived challenges, and because time and funding for board development can be limited, there is the temptation to have someone like me parachute in for a couple of hours with a straightforward solution. What Chad calls for here - support that sets learners up for success once the event is over - should be a core element of what we board trainers and consultants offer. Realistically speaking, this may not be coaching or other "live" post-event support - at least not without an appropriate fee attached. But we should be at least offering resources and helping boards to identify manageable next steps to move them forward in confidence. We shouldn't bomb them with PowerPoint slides and handouts and call it good. (I'm assuming that the vast majority of my fellow board developers don't actually do that, but clarifying for boards who may not know to expect this.)

I'll close with Shannon's parting advice as we ended the chat.  If you find yourself seeking a board training solution, step back. Ask these two simple questions, within your board and with any consultant you may approach for help. Develop some clarity about what you really want to change and whether a formal training event has the potential to help move you toward that change.

As with other posts in this year's nonprofit board learning environments series, I'll close with questions for your board's reflection - questions that I'll "steal" from Shannon's tweet above:

  • Why this?
  • Why now?


Rachel said...

Great article for reflection for boards of all types beyond just np. Sometimes I like to remember that the process drives the procedure but often times we just see the procedure if we weren't involved in the process. The same applies to boards and training. We want to focus on an end-result so we see training as that immediate option that might not always be needed.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Thanks, Rachel! There are so many reasons that training is so often the Plan A for our performance issues, including those you mention here. Also, the concept of "performance" and, specifically, "performance support," remains largely uncharted territory (especially in governance).