Monday, October 19, 2015

The three Cs of agile nonprofit boards: Creating competent, confident, high-capacity governing bodies

In a world where so many like to place nonprofit boards in predictable boxes - or predictable job descriptions leading to a clearly-defined future - a little agility is not only a good thing, it's a vital one.

I mentioned in last week's review of Pamela Meyer's new book, The Agility Shift: Creating Agile and Effective Leaders, Teams and Organizations, that encountering her description of three factors behind the shift sparked not only the first but possibly the biggest "aha" moment of my reading.

My gut reaction as I read the opening section laying out those agility factors - competence, capacity and confidence - was "YES!!" Framing these three components as essential for an agile organization also was a transformative moment for me. It's not that the idea of groups like boards needing to be able to respond and adapt to ever-changing circumstances is a shocking idea. Rather, it's the way Pamela has shaped an environment, and the necessary conditions, for not only surviving in that kind of an environment but leading there that is powerful. It not only made sense to me, it fit (and expanded) my evolving understanding of agile board learning. 

I know that I risk grossly misrepresenting Pamela's vision in pulling this out for some reflection here today. But I also trust that she'll recognize it as part of my own learning experience, as I try to interpret and apply to a governance setting. So here goes...


Pamela describes this element as "skills, knowledge, and abilities necessary to respond to the unexpected and unplanned, as well as to find opportunities in new developments and emerging trends" (p. 8).  We're already starting from a somewhat novel place with her conceptualization: not only does it address typical definitions of board competence - skills, knowledge, etc. - but it does so recognizing that we often use those tools in the often uncertain environment where boards actually work.

An ability to anticipate, respond to, and work from always-moving circumstances is a necessary part of that competence  Board member competence, both what we bring to the table and what we develop in our service, is necessary but insufficient for the leadership we are expected to provide. That is why we can gather smart, expert people in one room and have them fall short of ambitious but achievable expectations. We can't (solely) train or recruit our way to optimal board performance.



Pamela defines capacity this way: "the degree of uncertainty and volatility in which a person can be effective" (p. 8). Again, she encourages me to stretch just a bit beyond my normal mode of thinking about and discussing capacity within a board setting.

As I've moved beyond talking about competence-related capacity, my focus has turned toward topics related to boardroom behavior and organizational dynamics. That's certainly a big part of building a board's collective capacity, but Pamela's definition requires something more. Building capacity also requires expanding our ability to anticipate and prepare for a range of outcomes and circumstances beyond the neat, linear progression suggested in our planning. It requires developing and practicing a range of discussion and deliberation modes. And it requires inviting and engaging diverse modes of thinking and experiencing in anticipation of the full range of potential outcomes.

Certain aspects of expanding capacity may have a competence component. But for the most part, building this broader definition of capacity requires practice. We build board capacity by governing.


Pamela describes confidence as "the human need to trust in one's own and others' competence and capacity to be effective in changing contexts" (p. 9).

Clearly, the idea that board members perform better when they are confident in their abilities was not new to me. But it's so intuitive it was functionally invisible - until Pamela it placed into this context. Authentic confidence is the goal: we should want board members to recognize and appreciate what they do well.  They may accomplish some responsibilities in spite of themselves. But it is pretty much impossible to imagine a board fulfilling its full potential without legitimate confidence in their capacity and competence to lead.

We want them to use that confidence as a springboard for future action. We want to provide them with ample opportunities to practice  the actions, modes of working, and ways of being that create that confidence. Like exercise, and the capacity described above, authentic confidence most likely comes from using and strengthening governance "muscles" needed to fulfill our leadership responsibilities.

Outside of exhorting us to stop griping and moaning about your boards have let you down, I've not spent a lot of time considering what confidence looks like in a governance setting or how its presence (or lack thereof) impacts board and board member performance. As I write this, I realize that any notion I have about what confidence might look like will be hopelessly narrow and inadequate in light of what Pamela is describing. Instead, I'll pose some questions that might help expand thinking (mine and yours) about where those sources of confidence might lie. Expect a post on this later as I begin to generate some potential answer for consideration.

Here are the questions. Let's consider them in the context that Pamela has provided above - confidence in our individual and collective confidence and capacity in the face of change:

  • Are our board members confident?
  • How do we know?
  • If not, why not?
  • If overconfident, why?
  • If appropriately confident, what are the factors that contribute to that? What performance indicators, what emotional factors, what evidence makes a difference to them?
  • How can we offer authentic feedback and support to build confidence, in ways that impact performance?

I may revisit not only the notion of confidence but all three "Cs" of agile organizations down the road, especially as I continue to formulate my ideas about creating a nonprofit board learning environment. Life usually isn't completely linear. The circumstances in which our nonprofits operate isn't perfectly predictable. We need boards and board members who are agile enough to anticipate and prepare and adapt as those circumstances shift. That's how we foster the kind of leadership that matters - and the kind our boards need to be prepared to provide.

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