Saturday, December 26, 2015

Building nonprofit board talent: Some thoughts about a sector-level response

talent development
(Purchased from BigStock Photo)

What would happen if we shifted sector-level focus from board training and development to board talent development? How would that change the board training industry? How might it transform individual boards?

I've been thinking about this since the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) became the Association for Talent Development (ATD).  As my primary adult learning professional affiliation, ATD's evolution of thinking and programming has inevitably stretched my own framework and context for building board performance capacity.

Most of my focus in the last year - and across the blog's life - has been board-level learning. What can we do to support and improve our individual governing bodies' effectiveness? As I continue to count down the days to the official end of this year's board learning environments theme, I need to spend a bit more time offering some ideas - and posing a few questions - about what needs to happen beyond the individual boardroom. ATD's Competency Model offers an intriguing and useful foundation for that reflection.

I'm not at liberty to post a visual of the model here; but I can encourage you to visit the link shared above, encourage you check out the interactive version that ATD provides (click on each item for a description), and offer a few thoughts about how different components might be applied or adapted to a nonprofit governance setting.

Training delivery

Even as I've attempted to stretch our thinking about board development beyond the traditional focus on formal events this year, I've repeatedly acknowledged that those events have a legitimate role to play in a board setting. That said, those of us who provide those services need to continue to expand our teaching/facilitation frameworks and programs offered. We need to work toward increasingly context-driven, interactive agendas that lay the learning foundation that the boards that hire us really need. And speaking of "needs:" We need to push back, gently of course, when boards attempt to order the same old, classroom-y, cram it all in (quickly) formats that they think they want. We need to encourage them to trust us to facilitate the kinds of experiences that actually lay the foundation for the change they seek.


Our board members, board leaders, and the CEOs who partner with them need access to experienced, more expert coaches to guide them to effectiveness and fulfillment. I've known this for years, but the point was brought home even more vividly as my Alliance for Nonprofit Management research team peers and I analyzed data from our national board chairs survey. Two resonant points emerging from that data that apply to this component:

  • One, there was stated interest in access to coaching and mentoring resources among many survey respondents. If we build it as a sector - and make it convenient to access - there is a strong likelihood that many will come. "Convenient" appears to be key here. We can't establish a coaching program then kick back and wait for them to discover and come to us. We must do outreach that reaches those most in need and invite them to participate. Oh, and we need to participation as easy to accomplish as possible.
  • Two, there is a lot of learning by example taking place in our boards. But the big question for me continues to be about the quality of those examples. Without access to other ways of governing, ways of leading, ways of thinking about boards and how they interact, is there any real potential for breaking out of our dysfunctional patterns? Clearly, we need local mentors who govern alongside us and who understand our organizations and their missions. But we also need coaches who will stretch us and expose us to different modes and leadership examples. That's a sector-level responsibility and opportunity if we actually want to see change in our boardrooms.

Evaluating learning impact

I've followed board self-assessment research by governance scholar peers for a few years now. I've gathered, shared, used, and adapted various board evaluation tools made available on the practitioner side as well. My adult learning background always prompts me to beg for expansion on the learning side of the board performance equation. (Hmmm. Perhaps my next big research focus?)  I see this component of the ATD model as a joint responsibility. We need researchers - including adult education researchers - to develop the processes for describing how adult board members actually learn and evaluating the effectiveness of our intentional board development efforts. We need sector-wide conversations about what constitutes effective board performance. We also need participation from individual boards, both for allowing us in to observe and analyze learning as it happens and for providing context about what impact means to them and their communities. My own dissertation case study was one interesting step in that direction; but so much more is needed, both theory and practice.

Performance improvement

By now, I hope that this one will be old news to regular readers. Shifting our attention from board training and development to performance support might be the single most transformative move we can make as a sector. We don't want our boards to simply know more - we want them to perform more effectively and with greater impact. (Click here for a more detailed description of my board performance vision.) We need to shift from a focus on means (training and development) to a greater emphasis on the ends we seek from our boards (performance). To the extent that we can develop greater clarity with them, and identify together what that impact actually looks like, we improve their performance potential. It's important work that ultimately comes down to the individual board level, but it's not work they can do on their own. They need our help.

Integrated talent management

I debated whether to include this one in my analysis today, simply because of the jargon-y tone of "talent management." But in the end, I found value in aspects of how ATD describes this component - specifically, the way it connects to broader objectives that facilitate the performance connections that we need. Here are some of the bullet points that ATD uses to describe this element:

  • "Apply talent management to organizational objectives"
  • "Use talent management systems"
  • "Equip managers to develop their people"
  • "Promote high-performance workplaces"

Okay, so "management"  and "workforce" aren't perfect language fits to the nonprofit board setting. But the ideas behind them should be obviously and easily applied here. To the extent that we connect board learning and performance objectives to their governance responsibilities, and to the extent that we build environments and systems that support their continued capacity building, we set them up for success. To the extent that we prepare board leaders and CEOs to not just keep governing bodies on task but support and develop their full potential, and to the extent that we create and facilitate environments that foster high performance, we actually have the potential to actually see that performance realized.

Obviously, this post has more relevance to my fellow capacity builders than to boards and individual members - and probably only of immediate interest to me as part of the journey I've been on for the past year. But in the end, if we really want to see the change we all claim to want in our boards - if we want them to reach their full performance potential - we must step up as a sector to support and expand their talent.

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