Monday, September 19, 2016

The board chair experience: Most helpful related leadership roles, functions

Please rate how helpful you found the following experiences in preparing for and/or serving as board chair.

I have a minor confession to make. Responses to this question in the Alliance for Nonprofit Management's national board chairs survey prompted an almost immediate honing in on a topic that previously had received only minor coverage on this blog. A couple of years ago, nonprofit board committees started gaining more visibility here. This chart is the reason why.

If we combine the "helpful" and "very helpful" responses to the items on this question, the board committee chair role - by far - leads the pack as most common experience prior to chairing a board.

Combining those two columns looks like this:

  • Chair or chaired another nonprofit board - 51.55
  • Chair or chaired public sector or government board or council - 23.64
  • Chair or chaired a for-profit board - 13.9
  • Chair or chaired a committee - 81.74
  • Am or have been a nonprofit CEO - 27.43
  • Other - 30.19

No other experience comes close to leading a committee (81.74 percent). Number two, chairing another nonprofit board, was "helpful" or "very helpful" to 51.55 percent of respondents.

Now, we can't say chairing a committee is a deliberate or a direct path to that highest board leadership role based on responses to this survey question. We only can say that it was a common experience for board chairs participating in the survey, and that it was a helpful to very helpful one.  That is useful information.

I mentioned in the "helpful people" post in this series that I always had a small voice in the back of my mind as my researcher side analyzed the survey data. In this instance, that voice screamed so loudly that I responded here - even as I kept my motivation for the new committee posts to myself.

As with the other highlights posts in this series, researcher me offers the responses for your consideration, inviting you to do your own critical thinking about what they mean and how they might be of value to you and your board.

Consultant/educator/blogger me experienced a major "aha" moment and ran with it.  I already knew that our committees offer rich opportunities for members to develop deeper knowledge on some aspect of the board's work. I knew that growing expertise also represented a chance to demonstrate peer leadership that both shares the responsibility and fosters broader, meaningful engagement in board work.

Results of this question added a new layer of understanding about how those committee leadership puzzle pieces fell into place. I can't say it shifted my thinking drastically, since we can't make a causal connection between committee leadership and procession to the board chair role from this question alone. But it did expand my appreciation for the experiential value of our committees as learning and leadership incubators. Consultant/educator/blogger me began to think more expansively about different ways to envision our committees and support them with this new insight in mind.

Revisiting the "other" comments today, I see three themes, none of which probably will surprise any of us. "Other" related experiences informing board chair experiences came from:

  • Other nonprofit roles
  • Private sector roles (most dominant of the three)
  • Consultant status

A few representative responses illustrate what was shared:

I'm a faculty member and chaired my department and university committees.

I have been responsible for reporting to boards in my day job - this helped me understand the role of a Board and therefore understand the role of the Chair a bit more. 

I run my own business with numerous employees

I was a Nurse Administrator at the area Hospital.
I've been a senior development officer at a nonprofit for 10+ years and have worked closely with boards.
40 years in public accounting and 35 years as a CPA.

I am a National Consultant on development.

I am a strategy/business consultant to nonprofit organizations and routinely work closely with boards and CEOs.

Former City Council member and Mayor were also beneficial in understanding stakeholder needs and concerns.

I still may have committees on the brain that blind me to additional insights to expand our understanding of board chair preparation. If that is the case, and you see something that deserves consideration, please share in a comment.

NOTE: This post is part of a brief series reflecting on the findings from the recently released Alliance for Nonprofit Management board chair survey that I found most noteworthy. While I'm generally not alone in my interpretations of these findings, observations conveyed in these posts officially represent my own and not necessarily those of my research team colleagues of the ANM. Posts in the series, as well as other resources of potential value to board chairs, are pinned to my Pinterest board on the topic.


Norm King said...

There was/is a trend towards less standing committees of the board and more time limited/task specific task forces. Does this necessarily narrow the runway for experiential learning? Be it committee work or task force work, both are a proving ground for future Chairs and future nominees to the board of directors.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Not at all, Norm. All board work is experience and an *opportunity* to learn and develop. As you point out in your last sentence, both have leadership development potential. How we shape them, how we enhance their quality by being deliberate in what we ask of them, the support we give them, and how we use their work to inform the board's larger responsibilities all determine whether they become useful leadership fuel.

Laura L. Quinn said...

While I have had 25+ years in non-profit management and development--working very closely with boards--it wasn't until I became a board member myself, with a "minority vote" perspective, that I fully appreciated the role of board chair. I sat there for four years while the majority voters of the board made decisions with which I frequently did not agree....and often had the distinct sense that the chair had "pre-negotiated" the outcome. I watched; I engaged; I invested a great deal of time and thought in how I would have negotiated an outcome that would have been more inclusive of the spectrum of experience, perspectives and strengths of the board to come to better, more inclusive decisions, rather than using the role of chair to push through a majority opinion. Now that I am chair, that experience has been the most helpful and motivating role to prepare me for leading the board than any prior experience I have had in my professional or volunteer life. What I learned as a "junior"/minority member of the board--while, yes, putting in my time-- was that the leadership responsibilities of serving as a board chair are far greater than the functional responsibilities--and leadership requires opening oneself up to vulnerabilities, rather than using the power of the role to determine an outcome. While I'm sure that my experience as chair has been informed by prior professional and volunteer committee work, I find that there is a leap in your analysis from these experiences to serving as a board chair. Serving on the board itself--and, ideally, being supported/mentored as a junior member--should, seems to me, be the best and most helpful role to fulfill before becoming the chair.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

I appreciate your willingness to share your experience, Laura. If you return to read this, I'd be very interested in hearing more about some of the lessons learned, key experiences, etc., that shaped your thinking and your approach to board leadership. Really glad that you shared your your experiences as a member providing a minority-vote perspective shaped your own approach, too.

Paul Quin said...

I have served three Nonprofit Organizations in this capacity. I have been professionally involved since 1986; and my two greatest challenges involved hiring and retaining talented EDs, as well as succession planning of both Board and Executive Leadership.