Monday, January 11, 2016

Dealing with nonprofit board blind spots

What are our sector's governance blind spots? What are our individual boards' governance blind spots? How do we recognize them?

I was in the midst of a learning professionals Twitter chat last week when the moderator posed the two-part question above.  As the flow of responses followed a predictable, learning-focused path, my own mind naturally drifted toward the nonprofit boardroom. That wandering ended up sparking more questions than answers, but it felt worthy of raising here - not only for the chance for a bit of extended personal reflection but for the opportunity to ask for your feedback and examples.

Others in the chat pointed out the obvious: that blind spots are, well, blind - pretty much impossible to see in the moment. We can guess. We can point out others' blind spots. But the reality is that we likely have no idea how to respond to the questions I posed at the beginning of this post. 

We can, however, acknowledge their existence, create reflective environments that help stretch our thinking, and ensure that we have a diverse range of voices and experiences in the room to help facilitate that process.

Chad's tweet resonated, both from a more general adult learning (and personal) experience and from a board perspective. We know what we know. We have our professional and personal strengths and comfort zones. We have our areas of earned confidence. To the extent that they obscure our ability to see other options and red flags, they blind us. It's the governance equivalent of "if all you have is a hammer..." 

This is one of the compelling reasons diversity - of experiences, expertise, connections - must remain a top board priority. If everyone in the room has the same worldview, the same or similar skill sets (even if they're all mission-related), our blind spots magnify.

As I think about Chad's observation today, a vivid personal example comes to mind. It's not a particular moment of pride, but an instructive and probably familiar one. I served on a board facing a budget that was tight. Scarily tight. As our financial predicament grew increasingly problematic, our focus turned to obsession over the same set of factors that, frankly, offered no meaningful resolution even if they magically cured themselves. 

Our relatively homogeneous set of knowledge and experiences limited our capacity to think beyond what we viewed as obvious: the need to cut expenses. It took a new member joining the group, with both a fresh eye and a missing set of knowledge and experiences, to make a crucial challenge visible: issues with our billing process. She helped us to "see" what had been invisible to us in our single-minded focus on what we "knew" we had to fix. Once that happened, our options expanded and our ability to strengthen our financial foundation grew. That may be an oddly specific - and negative - example, but it brings home for me the need for help seeing past what we allow to become "obvious."
Interrogating our thinking! I love that. Have conversations with your brain - or, in the case of a board, our collection of brains. This is the value of all those questions I've been begging you to use as focal points in your meeting agendas. This feels like a topic worthy of its own post - which I will provide this time next week. In the meantime, I'll let Jeannette's excellent tweet sit with you and encourage the reflection she's describing.
As I mentioned in a recent post, access to a mentor or coach (for both new members and board leaders) carries tremendous value for the recipient of that support. Providing a neutral perspective - or at least another way of understanding our board experiences - is one of those value-added elements of a mentor or coaching relationship. These more expert friends and partners assist us by sharing their similar experiences or asking questions to help us remove our own blinders.

I'm still working with this topic, intrigued by its potential to explain some of the more challenging boardroom interactions and processes that we all experience. It may come up again here as that reflection continues. In the meantime, I'll look forward to expanding on Jeannette's comment and to hearing any recommendations, examples, etc., that arise as you think about board blindspots.

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