Monday, November 2, 2015

Embracing, creating, meaningful nonprofit board knowledge and performance

Most of us have a pretty good idea of the "what" of nonprofit board development, at least generally speaking.

We (well, most of us) have a grasp of roles and responsibilities that come with the job, the basic content of the typical board development efforts. We feel like we know what boards should be learning: the tasks that our organizations (and their CEOs) expect us to undertake on their behalf. We also probably have a good idea of how to present that content: a formal, face to face learning event (AKA "training"). If we're successful, our board members do what we ask them to do, exactly as we ask them to do it, at exactly the time we need it. We have trained them well if all of that happens.

That may very well be true, but it's only part of the board development - and performance - story. I risk "broken record" territory in offering this final reflection on Pamela Meyer's new book, The Agility Shift: Creating Agile and Effective Leaders, Teams and Organizations. But it's a risk I'm willing to take to share one more round of insights from this remarkable leadership resource.

Chapter eight, "Shifting to Agile Learning and Development," was a combination revelation and refresher for me. The general concepts my fellow adult educator shared were familiar. At the same time, when discussed in the context of her Relational Web, I came away with new layers of understanding about why it is so crucial to recognize and tend to the full range of learning needs that our boards have. Her call for organizational agility is a timely one for our governing bodies, so her framing of learning and development generally is a perfect fit.

"The purpose of learning in agile organizations is not just basic skill and knowledge development, it is also to improve and expand the Relational Web and to enhance individual and team effectiveness in changing conditions. This type of learning includes the ability to make optimal use of available resources, effectively frame problems and opportunities, make expedient decisions for action, and expand the agility capacity of your leaders, teams, and entire organizations." (p. 129)

May I get an "amen" here? This is what we really want when we schedule orientations, trainings, retreats and other learning-related events for our boards. Where we fall short is exactly where Pamela calls it: in centering too many of those efforts on skills and basic content knowledge development while we ignore the larger sets of competencies and capacities required to govern. Our boards have learning needs that may be less obvious, even invisible, but can mean the difference between failure, muddling through, and effective performance.

Pamela describes four types of knowledge that should be fairly easy to identify in a board setting (if we take the time to reflect and consider them):

Relational. The contextual knowledge that develops in relationship with others. Because it is contextual and situational, it is hard to impossible to try to transfer to other settings and other relationships.

Embodied. Intuitive, tacit awareness that we carry within our bodies,  "both the site of learning and the source of knowledge." Because it is tacit, much of this knowledge is totally invisible to us (so, again, not transferable or able to be captured or codified).

Reflective. Pamela uses a definition that may be different than the one many of us use to describe reflective practice: "It is gained through direct experience, as individuals and groups interact with one another, learning and cocreating cultural and ethical norms."

Contextual. This one is "understanding and appreciation of the conditions and dynamics of a specific situation, challenge, or opportunity." Think cultural norms, power and authority, relationships with donors and other stakeholders, and the internal and external social dynamics that impact how we work. (p. 130)

We develop relational knowledge in our interactions with fellow board members, the CEO and other senior staff. We develop embodied knowledge as we internalize the work of governance that is meaningful to us. We develop reflective knowledge in experiences that not only keep the board machine moving but that bring us closer to the mission and the work that moves our organization closer to fulfilling it. We develop contextual knowledge in embracing that mission and creating a leadership environment that respects those we serve, the commitments of our staff and volunteers, and the values of our community.

Each of those knowledge sources feed and enrich the learning that both naturally happens and needs to happen in a board setting. (Pamela also connects them to each of the five Relational Web components in ways that will make sense. Buy the book to access that additional layer of detail.)

In the end, it's not learning for learning's sake but improved performance that we seek in our board development efforts. It's also not enough - or fair - to simply con them into meeting our performance goals we set for them. We also must attend to the larger purposes that inspire many of our members to contribute their time and their wisdom in the first place:

"Performance indicators are directly linked to the real reason to care about the agility shift: the meaning, purpose, and happiness people experience when they are making a difference doing something important. This is also what will ultimately sustain your commitment to agility practices over the long haul." (p. 133)

If we fail to make those connections between learning content, performance indicators and personal meaning, we fail to support our boards' full leadership potential.


Bonnie Koenig said...

Thought provoking as always. I was reading this thinking about a Board meeting I participated in (as a Board member) over the past weekend. It seems that so much of Board members being able to make effective decisions in the context of an effective meeting (in 'real time') depends on these dots being connected. Having at least a core group of members who can help the group to connect the dots, offering (often simple) frameworks and analogies at key decision junctures takes the 'theory' from being 'just theory' or training to effective practice. And even better, reflecting or analyzing some past decision junctures the board itself has faced and how they've navigated through it can provide some great learning in action.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Having board members who are not only able but willing to make those connections may be half the battle, Bonnie. That is true situational leadership, so essential to our boards' success. One of the many things I appreciate about Pamela's work is the way in which she describes how to create and support that capacity.

Thanks for sharing your experience!