Monday, October 17, 2016

The board chair experience: Lingering questions, research regarding preparation

(Purchased from Bigstock Photo)

What did we really learn about the way nonprofit board chairs prepare for their significant leadership responsibilities? What are the big, yet-to-be-answered questions that need to be researched next? How might this data inform board leadership practice? By whom?

As I wrap up this series on board chair preparation data from the Alliance for Nonprofit Management survey, I find that I have a longer list of questions than answers. That's not surprising. Surveys capture some types of information well but not every aspect of the topic at hand. Even the most comprehensive, realistic survey could tell us only so much about the nonprofit board chair experience generally and the preparation undertaken specifically. 

I'm feeling the need for a bit of personal closure on this process. As I reflect on the big takeaways - and the big questions that remain (possibly for my own research agenda) - I hope that you also will share whatever feedback or questions that the series raised for you.

My major ahas and takeaways about board chair preparation

Overall, writing the series and revisiting the data both affirmed many of my working assumptions and expanded my understanding of what is - or is not - happening in the field. Some clear themes emerged, none of them terribly surprising. Among those themes:

Board chairs mostly learn from experience. That experience comes from their own previous board service, from experiencing predecessors leadership styles, and from applying workplace experience and expertise to the board setting.

From an adult learning perspective, that can be encouraging. Survey respondents recognized the capacity building potential of their experiences in learning/preparing for this new role, even when the questions did not specifically address them. Practically speaking, that bodes well for any effort to apply adult learning principles (e.g., the  70:20:10 framework) to expand thinking about board development. As we do in other settings, adults learn in many ways. Whether or not these board chairs connect those dots naturally, it should not be a revelation as we facilitate new kinds of development experiences for chairs and their fellow board members.

If you read other parts of this series, you know the big "HOWEVER..." that bears repeating here: not all experience is equally applicable or valuable.  To the extent that board leaders lack that awareness, and assume that what works in one setting will fit naturally in this one, they not only miss opportunities to explore more effective work modes but risk replicating the next generation of marginally effective to downright dysfunctional governance.

Most of their learning sources are internal. For the most part, their human sources of information and role models are internal: their predecessors, their CEOs, their friends, etc. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, except that it relies on the assumption that those sources have a deep, holistic understanding of nonprofit governance and what boards do.

That is a risky, limiting assumption. I've served on enough boards, provided enough training sesions and facilitated enough retreats and planning events to affirm that many are functioning on incomplete to fairly inaccurate definitions of what it means to govern a nonprofit. That's not a criticism of those specific boards. It simply affirms that we do a terrible job of making accessible resources that inform the work of our boards and an even worse job of facilitating broad discussions and opportunities to share between boards and across organizations. Boards and board leaders do the best they can with what they have available, but what they have frequently falls short of what they need to govern to their fullest potential.

Our boards and their leaders may go on indefinitely without encountering different perspectives and accessing tools to enhance their performance. They may never feel the need to seek out those resources because they don't know any better. In most cases, it's not that our boards are actively doing damage to their organizations or their communities. They simply aren't reaching their full leadership potential and not tending to the larger challenges of mission and vision that are the primary domains of governance. To the extent that their board chairs also operate on the assumption that what their predecessors did will be fine for them, they limit their own leadership.

As a fellow member of BoardSource's Nonprofit Governance LinkedIn group pointed out in response to one of the posts in this series, many board leaders (and, I would add, most boards) don't know what they don't know.

Preparation is not seen as a necessary step for many board chairs. Ruth's observation in that LinkedIn discussion hit on the head another takeaway that has been troubling me for as long as I've been reviewing our raw data. That about half (51 percent) of board chairs responding our survey reported taking no specific action to prepare for their responsibilities, and that the "not applicable" column percentages were so high when asked about information sources accessed, affirm her point. Again, this is not an indictment of the individual respondents so much as it is about the sector's failure to tend to the care, support and development of our boards and the community leaders who serve on them.

What Ruth described in our discussion is called "unconscious incompetence" in a popular "stages" model of how we learn. We function under a pretty major blind spot. If we don't know that we don't know, we don't feel the need to seek out additional information, perspectives, role models for our board leadership. I found it simultaneously fascinating and heartening that some hint of the next phase in that model - conscious incompetence (we KNOW what we don't know) - in the open-ended "wish I'd had..." question. Unfortunately for many, those revelations came too late in their current leadership term to be of value.

My lingering (research) questions about board chair preparation

This particular research experience is now over; but the opportunity exists to engage in next-step exploration of some of the questions that still weigh on my mind as a scholar, adult educator, and consultant/trainer.

Here are some of the resource/support access questions most weighing on my mind today:

  • What prompts someone to seek information or other support when preparing for this leadership role?
  • Where do they naturally turn when they have a learning need related to nonprofit board leadership?
  • What paths do they take to find those resources? 
  • What organizations, sites, etc., do they find most credible and accessible when searching for either information or support? How do they connect those resource dots?
  • What barriers do they face when they do search for information or support? Why are they experienced as barriers?

Here are some of the questions about the path(s) to the board chair role that intrigue me:

  • Are there actual, well-defined paths to this role? If so, how is preparation included in that process?
  • Knowing some of the common roles served prior to the board chair (e.g., committee chair), whether deliberate or not, how can we enrich those as leadership experiences so that they not only build capacity for those specific responsibilities but also inform the individual's work as board chair if that is a next step? 
  • What other kinds of leadership experiences can we foster in a board setting, formal or not, to fuel individuals' capacity to succeed in the ultimate board role?
  • How do we, as a sector and capacity builders, increase the quality and quantity of board chair resources and increase the accessibility and visibility of their existence?
  • How do we help new board chairs find the resources that they say they want and that already exist?

From those and similar questions taking shape in my mind are these next-step research questions:

  • What prompts a new board chair to seek information or support for the role? To what sources do they most frequently go in that search? Why? 
  • What sparks the perceived need to search for help or guidance? 
  • What qualifies as valuable, helpful resource(s) in that search?
  • How do they learn and support their performance in other areas of their lives (e.g., what tools, information sources, human resources do they use for other learning needs)? How closely do those sources of support fit those they turn to for support in this role? 
  • Do they perceive preparation for the board chair role to be worth the investment (time and money)? If not, what factors would make such a commitment worthwhile to them?

  • How do new board chairs apply previous experiences from other settings to this role? How do they define application potential to the nonprofit board setting? What do they do when they find the fit to that new setting isn't perfect - or even problematic?
  • How do their board role models and resources inform their thinking and practice as chair? Do they mostly rely on those individuals as positive sources? How do they respond to examples that are less than positive?

Clearly, these three rough research themes represent a lifetime of work if I were to let them become that.  Clearly, some of these questions cannot be adequately addressed using quantitative methods. I/we need to sit down with board chairs and talk about their support needs, their experiences, and their role models' influence. Clearly, as I - anyone else - move forward to address these general topics, the questions themselves will face refinement. But they beg to be asked, and asking is essential if we really want to ensure that our board leaders are prepared for successful service. It is worth the investment of time and energy.

This concludes the series spotlighting board chair preparation data. I have at least two or three topics from the second half of our survey that I would like to discuss in coming weeks. In the meantime, I will publish a post this week containing links to the various components of the preparation series to make accessing them easier for readers, students, and others interested in exploring the topic in greater depth. They also are available on my board chairs Pinterest board.

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.

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