Monday, October 31, 2016

Creating catalytic boards (and board leaders): Pipe dream or transformative potential?

(Purchased from Bigstock Photo)

What does it really take to spark the kind of leadership we need in our boards? What must happen to to prepare the leaders of those boards to shepherd that success? How do we get from where we are today to where we say we want our governing bodies to be?

I'll admit this: after the long survey process and the extended writing here exploring data regarding how our board chairs are prepared for the job, I'm tired. I'm disheartened and tired. That's one of the reasons I went AWOL here last week: the gap between the experiences described by board leader survey participants and where we need our governing bodies to be feels pretty vast at the moment.

Some specifics in the survey data may have surprised, but the overall message did not: Our board leaders do the best they can with what they have, but for too many, it's not nearly enough. Many know that that is the case. Too many others don't. Either way, I don't blame the chairs. I do think the sector needs a gut-check: how committed are we - really - to supporting the boards we claim we want? Really? 

Over the weekend, I found myself desperate for a good palate cleanse - a reminder of the leadership potential that lies in varying levels of dormancy within most of our boards.  Along the way, I ended up returning to work that both affirms what I've always known was possible and expands my definition of "possible:" the concept of catalytic thinking that drives the work of Creating the Future. 

I'm a CTF fellow (a graduate of its immersion program and part of its consultant community). I draw all the time on the core principles of catalytic thinking, unconsciously as much as on purpose. (I came to the work naturally, attracted as much by what I already knew in my heart as the chance to transform my work with nonprofits.) Though relatively brief - so far - coming back to that work is reminding me that the vision I have and share here, and that I saw here and there in so many survey comments, can be more than a wistful nonprofit dream.

I also began getting reacquainted with CTF's Continuum of Potential - the process of meeting people/organizations where they are and moving forward - because, frankly, you can't get to the "there" that catalytic thinking promises from the "here" found in our survey in a single leap. I can predict some of the "are you kidding?!" responses that many would have - because I've felt that myself, both as a board member and board capacity builder. Some days, the gap feels Grand Canyon wide. After spending so much time in the survey data over the last month-plus, this is one of those "days."

Renewing my acquaintance with these core ideas from CTF is a start, but only a first step. I need to spend a bit more time with my favorite governance models, reminding myself of the kind of leadership they require. I want to dip back into my own research on boards as communities of practice, return to the COP literature, and envision the leadership that those bodies need to succeed. And, of course, I need to drink from the resource waters of a favorite topic here (and a common element with CTF's work): the power of inquiry, driven by great and expansive questions.

I wish I could say that a good weekend of reflection has me feeling better about life - or at least the fate of our nonprofit boards. But that's not the case. It's a process unfolding as I type, which means I have no idea what comes next or how much of it will end up articulated in this space. I had planned one path as a follow-up to the series. Pieces of that path may still end up in the new puzzle. But I'm feeling a strong need to pull the lens back a bit.

Clearly, we need resources and processes and performance aids and networks to support our board leaders. But it's more than that. We also, desperately need a broader, sector- and organization-level culture shift if we're serious about holding the governance bar high. "Tools" that don't move us closer to our full potential are worthless.

I'd intended to write a far different post for today. It will come, maybe next week. But I'm already seeing how it - and other "what next" ideas floating in my brain - need refinement. I hope you'll come along for the ride, and that you will offer whatever wisdom it inspires you to share.

1 comment:

GayleGifford said...

And do this all as volunteers. I know volunteers can run all by themselves some pretty intense and amazing program activities like creating a farming program for incarcerated men and women or running the weekly community meal for those who are homeless or food insecure. I've done versions of that program volunteering myself like organizing conferences and rallies, writing newsletters and press releases, serving as part of a speakers bureau, and more. And that folks who volunteer for jobs like hotlines or CASA advocacy are willing to undergo pretty intense training requirements. Or when I was doing anti-nuclear advocacy, we ran a six part workshop series to give women the knowledge to speak confidently about radiation, nuclear power and nuclear weapons.

But board service? How do we make board service as exciting and rewarding as those projects I listed above so that board members are interested in investing the time to learn? And what do they really need to learn?

I was at a workshop Friday where one of the speakers facetiously described her board term as a "three year sentence" and re-upping as recidivism. This is sticking with me. How do we make it not a sentence but a joy while still being hard work.

Can't wait where you go next in your thinking.