Friday, May 29, 2015

Governance toolbox: May potpourri

What a difference a week makes. Where I last faced what seemed to be an endless list of negative-toned (but still useful) resources, the month ends on a more positive note. Here is this month's "potpourri" mix of links and resources.

Nine key trends affecting the charitable sector (direct PDF download) -- Different trends described by Independent Sector may ring truer for you than others. Different sections may be more germane to your organization than others. Whatever the case, this document represents an opportunity to engage your board in generative and strategic thinking about the future. You  know. The kind of future-oriented work that it should be doing in governance. What you ultimately emerge with as points of consensus, action items, etc., isn't important. Even coming away with a "well, that's nuts..." conclusion is fine. What's important is that you have a discussion around meaningful questions of impact for your community and your organization. Share it with your board. Schedule a conversation - perhaps a multi-session conversation - with your board soon.

How great leaders avoid getting burned out: Two simple secrets -- They had me at the title. Clicking on the link and discovering that the author was my brilliant cousin, Erika Andersen, made it an even bigger treat. She describes issues facing senior private-sector executives, but they likely will ring familiar with many nonprofit board leaders as well. Admit it: how often have you reacted with one of the excuses Erika describes as a board chairperson? I can say generally that I've seen evidence of all of them (and wrestled with a couple) in my work on and with boards. Very thought-provoking, a must-read for all nonprofit board leaders (and a CEO or two).

19 timeless habits of today's most effective leaders -- Not all will apply to a volunteer group like a nonprofit board, but the universals on Peter Economy's list in this post absolutely transfer to this setting. Nothing on the list should be a surprise. But it offers a great opportunity to sit back for a moment and reflect on how we approach the critical people work of board leadership. Use it as a reflection opportunity and a moment for informal self-assessment.

13 beliefs that hold you back -- Hmmm. Maybe this post is more "leadership" than "random interesting things shared at the end of the month." Whatever the case, I offer Dan Rockwell's latest as another great reflection/evaluation opportunity. In keeping with the promised "positive" tone, I suggest spending more time exploring ways to build your capacity in the "beliefs that lift you high" area. I can see three obvious points of application: as individual board leader, as individual board member, and the board as a collective body. What are the beliefs that keep you from serving at your highest potential? Where can you soar if you choose a different belief path as a foundation for your service? Again, this is another potentially valuable resource for sparking individual reflection and collective conversation.

Setting your mission free in the wild -- On the surface, this one may feel more applicable to our friends working in, and for, museums. Maybe other types of cultural organizations. But I'd encourage you to stretch your view a bit further, if that's all you see, and consider Nina Simon's larger message: the value of reaching out and engaging beyond the physical walls (and traditional go-to boundaries) that confine our thinking about our missions. For some, that may be literally outdoors. For others, it may be more of a metaphorical change of scenery. Either way, I encourage you to consider inviting your board to explore the questions that  Nina poses: "How many of the best things you're doing are locked behind doors? How might things change if you could do them out on the street?" I'd add a third part of that discussion: what can we, as a board, do to better bring our story "out on the street?"

The most overlooked way of stimulating team creativity -- "Creative discomfort." I like that - and fear it, just a little. That's okay. Jake Levine's Harvard Business Review article addresses the private sector, but the concept transfers well to a nonprofit (and nonprofit board) setting. How can you introduce a little strategic "creative discomfort" to stimulate team thinking and action?

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Four modes of nonprofit boardroom inquiry

What is inquiry? What does board inquiry look like? How do we know when inquiry is in our bones and hearts as a governing body? Is all inquiry the same? Is all inquiry productive?

I continue to work on ways to translate the larger concepts described in Edgar Schein's remarkable book, Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling. in ways that might be actionable to nonprofit boards, I thought I'd share one framework that may ring familiar to readers: Schein's "four fundamentally different forms of inquiry." I predict that you - and your fellow board members - may recognize one or more modes, perhaps from your own governance deliberations.

Humble inquiry -- The focus of the book, this mode of questioning "maximizes...curiosity and interest in the other person and minimizes bias and preconceptions about the other person" (p. 40). Groups and individual engaged in humble inquiry openly "access [their] ignorance," looking for ways to question and seek information in ways that are the least threatening possible.

Many of us would like to think that this is a straightforward process, especially in a group of individuals gathered around one compelling purpose. But I can predict at least three challenges:

One, many of the biases that become obstacles can be mighty hard to identify - especially when we aren't used to talking about them. Our barriers may be utterly unconscious and seemingly impossible to unearth in our relatively brief boardroom interactions. And if we are aware, we may be deeply uncomfortable discussing or admitting to them.

Two, uncovering and setting aside our preconceived notions and committing to create something new and wonderful with others is hard work. It also doesn't happen overnight - or fit easily within the confines of the typical two-hour board meeting agenda.

Three, we may sometimes (or often) operate from the assumption that our way is the one that makes the most sense for our organization. We have no interest in open and expansive, everybody's-voice-must-be-heard conversations when we "know" we are right.

Humble inquiry takes a level of commitment and a new way of working that only some boards are ready to make. It also requies patience to transform group culture to sustain it. Humble inquiry flies in the face of the culture so dominant in so many of our nonprofit boardrooms and elsewhere, what Schein calls the "culture of do and tell."

Diagnostic inquiry -- "(W)hen I get curious about a particular thing the other person is telling me and choose to focus on it" (p. 43). If we  are engaged in diagnostic inquiry, we ask questions that guide the other person's thinking in a specific direction. In doing so, we also direct the path of the discussion between us. Schein identifies four common points of focus in this kind of inquiry: feelings and reactions, causes and motives, action-oriented (what they did or are planning do to), and systematic (aimed at understanding the larger situation). Self-awareness is a primary goal of this type of inquiry.

Confrontational inquiry -- "(Y)ou now insert your own ideas but in the form of a question....the inquirer is taking charge of both the process and content of the conversation" (pp. 46-47). We ask questions that serve our own personal interests. Even when cloaked as advice, questions in this form of inquiry may place participants in defensive mode. "Timing, tone of voice, and various other cues tell the listener about your motives." (p. 48)

Process-oriented inquiry -- Focus is on the conversation itself. "The power of this kind of inquiry is that it focuses on the relationship itself and enables both parties to assess whether their relationship goals are being met" (p. 49). Schein says this type of inquiry is the toughest, because we seldom have opportunities to learn and practice it. We just don't talk about how we're working together and why. We need to change that; because plain, garden-variety group dynamics issues often underlie some of our more vexing governance effectiveness challenges.

Like the premise of humble inquiry, I've experienced push-back from some boards when the notion of doing process-oriented work is posed. Hey, I've been that board member. The hesitation is understandable within our current conceptions of nonprofit board work (action-packed agendas focused on decision-making). But it's short-sighted to discount the value of questioning whether we are working as openly and collaboratively and effectively as possible.

Do you recognize your boardroom interactions in any of these descriptions? Do you see potential for growth in one or more modes? Have you seen the dark side of any of these inquiry forms?

Friday, May 22, 2015

Governance toolbox: A few holiday weekend/summer reading recommendations

Heading into the three-day (U.S.) holiday weekend, I'd hoped to offer a few positive/inspirational resources. But looking at the mostly negative tone of what I'd bookmarked for consideration recently, I think I'll take a different approach and share a handful of books that, while not necessarily governance-focused, offer much to consider and apply to the nonprofit boardroom.

Humble inquiry: The gentle art of asking instead of telling (Edgar Schein)

Schein shaped my thinking about organizational culture many years ago, so I shouldn't be surprised that this text on "building positive relationships and better organizations" resonated as it did when I first read it. I must admit total lack of surprise that his section on "The Culture of Do and Tell" resonated most, both as a callback to Schein's earlier work and as a connection to one of the bigger challenges for many nonprofit boards. (Expect a post on that topic soon.) But the entire premise of "humble inquiry" is one that boards and board leaders will find simultaneously transformative and challenging. It's a quick and inspiring read.

Dialogue: The art of thinking together (William Isaacs)

I'm still reading this one, but I'm so excited about what I am learning and exploring from a board perspective that it must be on the list. Isaacs' distinction between discussion and dialogue is the compelling message early, one that I predict boards would find enlightening. We tend to do a lot of discussing - and engaging in the judgments that are essential to that particular process. Discussion has its role in governance; but so does dialogue, "exploring the nature of choice." I'm both pleased to see reference to the generative function of dialogue and interested in seeing where he takes it in the rest of the book. Guess what I'll be finishing this long weekend (and, undoubtedly, writing about later).

A more beautiful question: The power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas (Warren Berger)

I've shared my love for this book before, but it is so deep and abiding that it simply needs to be on this list. The title says it all: this book inspires us to embrace the power of the question. It also challenges us to commit to the inquiry that a great question fuels. I dare to say it is work that will stretch some boards. But it is a stretch that must be made, because it's one of their  ultimate contributions and responsibilities.

Consider: Harnessing the power of reflective thinking in your organization (Daniel Forrester)

My love for Consider also is known to regular readers. I've written about the key messages for me  in an earlier post. Completing the cycle of dialogue fueled by great questions is, yes, the power of reflection. We action-oriented boards spend far too little time appreciating and practicing reflection. We need to change that. Forrester's book provides the perfect foundation for understanding and applying reflective practice, in our lives and in our boardrooms.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Governance toolbox: The "Mooooo" edition

This week's title inspired by the first link, obviously: boards wearing paths to the tried and true (if not always effective) habits of board work, unless leaders help them discover the "new gates" that take them somewhere better. 

Cows and new gates -- The imagery of Dan's opening paragraphs on this one was so vivid - and so familiar - that I knew it had to be shared this week. The bottom line message for board leaders: go first. Even among a group of recognized community leaders, there is a need for someone go "go first:" to model the kind of attitudes and behaviors that will help them reach their full potential for the greater good. I can't improve on the simple, convicting descriptions that Dan offers in this post, so I'll simply encourage you to read it - and share it with your favorite board leader. How will they - you - lead your board to its "new gate?"

8 attributes of an outstanding board chair -- While we're on the topic of board leadership, this excellent Bloomerang post by Jay Love captures perfectly eight essential capacities that he says all boards should require of their chairpersons. Particularly noteworthy - because it simply isn't a given in many conceptualizations of board leadership - is the inclusion of a relationship management role (number five).  It's an ambitious list, one that may include a big stretch - or three - for the typical candidate. But it's an accurate representation of the kind of commitment and skill that we need in our leaders if we are to reach our full governance potential.

Six smart moves great board chairs make -- Ellis Carter, one of my favorite nonprofit-focused legal minds, offers her own list of musts for board chairs. Her "smart moves" complement Love's list in interesting ways. One that caught my eye - again, not because it's typically on most list-makers' radars - is number five: make board service fun. As with Love's number five, it's not necessarily an official task of governance, but its presence certainly makes governance fulfilling for the volunteers doing the work. Governance is so much more than checking tasks off a list. (Hmmm. Expect a post on that topic very soon.)

Never tell eagles to stop soaring --
How can so many smart people become such a middling mess when we bring them together? There's a little piece of me that thinks part of the answer can be found in this brief Leadership Freak post. Aside from the general advice offered to group leaders, there is great value in the reflection questions posed at the end. I can see these being part of an effective individual-level board self-assessment process.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Do this, not that: Some (potential) reasons nonprofit boards fall short of expectations

Why won't they just do what we want them to do?

My quest to explore factors - obvious and not - for nonprofit boards falling short of expectations continues. This week, that path led me to Ferdinand Fournies' book, Why employees don't do what they're supposed to do... and what TO DO about it."

Fournies' "hidden influences that affect everyone's performance" caught my eye when they were referenced in an earlier reading on performance support. As the title suggests, the book's focus - and many of the specific recommendations - are not necessarily perfect fits to the volunteer-leader board environment. But the general principles and challenges of several of the "influences" on Fournies' list absolutely can be applied to the nonprofit governance setting. Today, I select a few of the influences most likely to shape board member performance and invite you consider what you might do to help them become non-factors.

"They don't know why they should do it." Nonprofit governance is challenging and multifaceted, but it's not rocket science and board members aren't dummies. Still, I open with this one because of the dual potential that (a) they still govern from a set of discreet tasks, rather than a mission-grounded leadership foundation and (b) those discreet tasks are not communicated in the context of that larger governance responsibility (or, in some cases, not ultimately connected at all. We do them because "tradition" tells us to do them.).

"They don't know how to do it" Sometimes, we make rash assumptions that community leaders with expertise in areas of general value to the organizational understand the nonprofit environment and the specific needs that accompany it. We may need to adjust the application of our expertise to fit the nonprofit context. Or board members literally don't know how to do what we need for them to do. Two very common examples: reading financial statements and evaluating CEOs. I'm shocked, both by how common those two legitimate board learning needs are and how often the typical response is sitting back and griping about shoddy performance instead of helping the board find the resources and support to change it.

"They think something else is more important." This one is commonly grounded in two things. One, members seriously don't know what their job entails, because the board never takes the time to collectively clarify its ultimate purpose and responsibilities (or they operate from assumptions based in their experiences on another board). Two, they know the job generally but are unclear or at odds over where focus should be and how to define the ultimate priorities and approaches. Legitimate disagreement about priorities is one thing. Acting in ignorance because the board never takes the time to identify where its focus and time will be best spent is something completely different. To the extent that the board doesn't make the time to regularly reflect on those critical questions, that is its own fault. To the extent that you fill their agendas with busy work and details about management functions rather than governance priorities and questions, that is yours.

"They think they are doing it." Sadly, because so many boards lack clarity about what it means to govern, they think that sitting around listening to reports and mirroring management functions in their committee and general work is what they are supposed to do. One potentially troubling message from the national board chairs survey: board leaders generally are not accessing resources - any resources - to learn more about their responsibilities. (Remember my earlier caveat: we can't say why from the survey data alone.) It's a leap - but let's be honest, not a terribly big one - to predict that their board member peers also are not actively searching for information on best practices or alternative approaches to governance. Nope, we're all following the practices, examples and traditions of those who served before us. They - we - think this is governance.

Punishments and rewards. Okay, so this isn't exactly one of Ferdinand Fournies' influences. But it is a melding of several related to rewards and punishments and whether or not there are consequences for one's actions. I initially set all of those aside as not germane to board work. But as I prepare to close this post, I realize there is a larger theme within them that certainly does: accountability. Whether or not there are explicit rewards or punishments involved, board members have the responsibility - and the right - to ongoing feedback about their performance. We need to know where our strengths are pushing us closer to our goals and where our shortcomings are holding us, and our organizations, back. We have the responsibility - and the right - to acknowledge, even celebrate, the former. They become our next, higher foundation for the next phase of our work. We have the responsibility - and the right - to understand the latter, in a timely and supportive manner, so that we have the opportunity to make productive changes. The board owes us that. Board leadership needs to make that happen, via regular individual and group assessment.

This post already borders on "too long;" but I want to at least acknowledge additional four factors that have the potential to be major challenges in a board setting. They also are, frankly, quite straightforward - if not easy - to address. Fournies'"obstacles beyond their control" are:

  • Resources not available
  • Poor quality of resources
  • Conflicting instructions
  • Responsibility without authority

As a veteran board member, and as someone who has worked with too many boards to count, I can say that I've seen many versions of the first three. I also know that they are pretty much inexcusable. Governance resources - free and not - are abundant. If we look. High-quality resources - free and not - are plentiful. "Conflicting instructions" may show up as conflicting priorities and roles in a board setting. That, too, is a simple matter of stopping the busy work long enough to have meaningful discussions about "where we are going and how we are going to get there," and moving forward from the responses.

As with other posts in the 2015 Board Learning Environments series, I'll close with a couple of reflection questions for readers:

  • Do you recognize your board in any of Ferdinand Fournies' "hidden influences?" 
  • If so, what can you - and your board - do to neutralize that influence?

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Remarkable board leadership through learning: The governance committee role

So we've empowered our boards to own their learning and development. They're ready and enthusiastic about not just filling seats at the boardroom table but actively leading and governing.

But where do they start?

In last week's post, I recommended using the governance committee (aka board development committee) as the locus of activity for this work. I offered a few general ideas there but came away feeling the need to outline a more detailed picture of the kinds of responsibilities that body must accept to make this happen.

Today, I attempt to offer a sense of that structure and process enacted through this committee. I'll acknowledge up front that board development is only one responsibility of a governance committee. Those other roles are not reflected here.

In terms of board learning and capacity building, I see three primary responsibility areas for this committee:

  • Identifying board capacity needs
  • Identifying board learning and performance needs
  • Evaluating success of governance learning and performance initiatives

Identifying board capacity needs

Nonprofit boards have a diverse range of ongoing needs to govern - and lead - effectively. The governance committee's work begins with ensuring that those needs are identified, tracked and addressed. This starts with facilitating regular discussions identifying the capacities and competencies required to fulfill their full scope of responsibilities.

As those needs are identified (an evolving process, never "done"), the governance committee leads the board in identifying which are highest priorities for the board's immediate recruitment goals. Those needs should drive the ongoing processes of identifying the best possible candidates for board membership. As they are cultivated, prospective board members should know exactly why you see them as the best fit right now. Clarity about their specific strengths and contributions they would be expected to make increases the potential that they will begin service ready to step up and expand the board's overall capacity immediately.

Identifying board learning and performance needs

What does the board need to be able to understand, and do, to lead in the next year? On an ongoing basis? What kinds of performance do we need from our board, collectively and as individual members? What does successful "performance" look like? With what impact on the organization? Where are the gaps in current performance and where we need the board to be? What do we need do to close those gaps?

This is another layer of assessment that the governance committee should lead on behalf of the board. I see that as happening in a series of steps:

  • Maintaining (and updating when needed) job descriptions for board members and board leaders that represent the full scope of responsibilities required of each role.
  • Facilitating an annual board goal-setting process grounded in the question: Where do we, as a board, focus our energy and attention for greatest impact?
  • Identifying the learning and performance needs that will ensure the board's success in meeting those goals.
  • Identifying the best vehicles for meeting those needs: training? Performance support? Access to resources in the board portal? Something else?
  • Scheduling and ensuring delivery of those needs, across the board year.

Evaluating success of governance learning and performance initiatives

Evaluation both brings closure to specific learning and performance efforts and informs/initiates the next generation. Leading that process is the governance committee's responsibility. Formally, that can take shape in these ways:

  • Evaluating individual learning initiatives and programs.
  • Evaluating the effectiveness of performance support resources and processes.
  • Assessing the collective results of individual evaluation processes to identify places for improvement as well as new need areas.

Informally,  the governance committee can support board leaders in modeling reflective board practice: stopping to ask generative and strategic questions, like "what does this mean..." and "where would this takes us if...," before decisions are made. It also comes in stopping to reflect after the fact, on questions like "how did we advance the mission of our organization today" and "what could we have done differently to make the process even more effective?"

As with other posts in the 2015 Board Learning Environments series, I'll close with a couple of reflection questions for readers:

  • How can we empower our governance/board development committee to assume greater leadership in addressing our learning and performance needs?
  • How can we support that committee as it builds (or strengthens) a culture of learning and assessment as an essential part of the governance process?

Monday, May 4, 2015

Governance toolbox: What happens in the nonprofit boardroom...

This week's saved links carry a nice "what happens in the boardroom..." kind of theme.

Distinguishing a board's steering and rowing work -- I may have shared this William Ryan article when it first was published. But since the topic is evergreen, and it's one on my mind as I cover it this weekend in a local training event, it's worth the risk of potential duplication. The scenario where a nonprofit board can simply sit back and govern is so rare, it's downright mythical. The reality for most of us is that board work is a mix of steering (governance) and rowing (some form of volunteer, service, frontline work). Being able to distinguish between the two, acknowledge the role that each play - and not let the steering component get lost in the shuffle - is critically important. Ryan's Nonprofit Quarterly article does a fantastic job of making the distinctions. I found his "substitution test" to be incredibly helpful. You must have this conversation with your board. Trust me. Do it.

Enhance attrition or thank and release? Firing lousy board members -- This  NPQ  article offers some frank counsel on how to handle a troublesome situation for too many boards: coming to terms with the fact that some board members either aren't the right fit for us. I'm not one to advocate for cutting people loose without giving them a chance to understand how their performance falls short of expectations (or stirs the pot in unproductive ways). But sometimes, we get to a point where it's simply more appropriate to cut ties. Simone Joyaux's post addresses both topics - how to handle that truly bad fit and how to avoid it in the first place.  (Hint: it's not in the ever-popular "any live body will do" approach to recruitment.)

Outsmart your own biases -- The opening paragraphs of this Harvard Business Review article may not appear germane to nonprofit boards, but keep reading. You'll find such gems as

You might trust your intuition, which has guided you well in the past, and send her on her way. That’s what most executives say they’d do when we pose this scenario in our classes on managerial decision making. The problem is, unless you occasionally go against your gut, you haven’t put your intuition to the test.

We're smart people. We likely were recruited because we're smart - and wise - people usually well-served by their intuition. But it's all too easy to fall into a familiar trap, especially in long meetings held at the end of our work days, of not challenging ourselves and each other around sticky and uncertain topics. I'm also terribly interested in the "premortem" notion (note the link to a separate article on that topic). I'm not sure I'd always use it to predict failures - we need to spend more of our time envisioning and moving toward the better future we exist to create. But it feels like a potentially useful tool, however focused, for testing assumptions and discussing different scenarios based in the decisions we are about to make.

Groupthink in the boardroom -- I've found many of the sector's governing bodies to be particularly ripe for this group dynamics challenge, for at least a couple of reasons. One, our attempts to diversify often fall short (if they exist at all), which leaves us with a room full of people who largely think and act just like us, from backgrounds very similar to ours. (In my hometown, it's usually white, middle-class, college-educated professional women with ties to the local university.) Two, we're coming to this work as volunteers. We want to make a difference.  We want to interact with others with the same leadership and service aspirations. We want to have fun - or at least feel good about all those hours we're giving to the work. Without conscious, collective commitment to stretching boundaries and pushing each other, and with out leadership who will hold us accountable for that, it's too easy to sit back and not rock the boat. Sometimes, that boat needs to be rocked. Occasionally, it needs to be flipped over. If we're all too busy making nice and applauding each other's "brilliant" ideas that we end up trapped in the groupthink quagmire. This excellent article by Leading Governance covers the topic well. Share it with your board and use it as a focal point for ongoing conversation about avoiding this tricky group challenge.