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.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The board chair experience: Collected preparation series posts

improving nonprofit board chair performance
(Purchased from Bigstock Photo)

This post captures all components of my recently-completed series on nonprofit board chair preparation data from the Alliance for Nonprofit Management national survey.

As noted in the disclaimers at the end of each post, the analysis and commentary are mine and do not necessarily represent the interpretations of my fellow survey team members or the Alliance. These posts also can be found on my "Chairing Nonprofit Boards" Pinterest resource.

Just released: Alliance for Nonprofit Management board chairs survey
How helpful were common information sources?
Helpful people
Helpful resources - the rest of the story
"I wish I'd had..."
Most helpful related leadership roles, functions
How did you get to this governance leadership role?
Applying the 70:20:10 framework to preparation data
Lingering questions, research regarding preparation

Monday, October 17, 2016

The board chair experience: Lingering questions, research regarding preparation

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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.

Monday, October 3, 2016

The board chair experience: Applying the 70:20:10 framework to preparation data

Can we find evidence of the 70:20:10 adult learning framework in the Alliance for Nonprofit Management board chair survey preparation data? As I begin to wrap up this series highlighting that portion of our research, I can't help but notice some pretty clear connections between participants' responses and that model of describing how adults learn.

I'll acknowledge up front that this is a big stretch, one out of the bounds of my role as a member of the survey research team. But the adult educator in me can't help exploring how the findings - including comments - end up aligning with this framework. I began noticing the intersections as I revisited the data during the series. As I started capturing some of those observations, the connections were clear. I won't overstate or pretend that this was something we sought as we designed the survey. It just is. And, for me, what it "is" is somewhat interesting.

A quick recap of the 70:20:10 framework:

  • 70 percent of learning comes via experience - doing, engaging in stretch assignments, making and learning from mistakes, etc.
  • 20 percent comes from working with and under others - collaborative assignments, mentoring relationships, engaging in personal learning networks, etc.
  • 10 percent happens in formal learning experiences - primarily training.

The model also is expressed this way: experience, exposure, education.

Following are some of the noteworthy elements that I identified while writing the series. These are my observations and mine alone. They are merely observations.


Experiential learning (Experience)

One thing should have been clear from my series: evidence of "experience" - reported where we asked about it and even where we didn't - was everywhere. In some cases, we asked directly. But even when we didn't, many respondents volunteered experiences to describe what they found helpful in the context of the question posed. Experience was a common theme in "other" comments for questions about helpful information sources and helpful people - a strong theme, in both cases, even when experience wasn't necessarily the point.

The dominance of experience references was fascinating. One of the reasons for that fascination is precisely what I cannot tell from that dominance. Why was that experience shared germane to their work or preparation as board chair? How did that experience inform their thinking and practice in that role? Was this a quality experience, especially as it relates to nonprofit board service?

Looking back at the "experience" data now, I can say that I'm not surprised that it was so common - especially as I bring 70:20:10 into the picture. In the larger context, though, particularly when offered as "other" resources in lieu of things like reading books or exploring Internet resources about boards and board leadership or participating in webinars or conferences designed to prepare them for the role, researcher me finds it, well, interesting.

Practitioner me finds it a bit troubling, to be honest.  Not all experience is created equal, and not all experience fits perfectly to the unique setting of nonprofit governance. And experience replicated over and over again within a board, or between boards, without pausing to reflect on why we do it that way or introducing different perspectives on how to govern, simply reproduces more of the same - whether or not it's functional or effective. When experience is the only pool in which we dip our toes, we miss significant opportunities to learn and grow as leaders. That is what I am seeing in the data.

Social learning (Exposure)

How this unfolded in survey data surprised me the most. It blew me away, frankly. Yes, there were the expected places where social preparation support emerged, both in the design of the question and the responses offered within it. That was especially true of our "most helpful people" question, where identifying social learning sources was the point of the query.

The epicenter of my "ahas" regarding social learning interests and needs, though, was the open-ended, "in hindsight, I wish I'd had..." question. As I prepared for my post analyzing that question, I must admit that I was shocked by the fact that two of the four dominant themes that emerged were social learning-related. In hindsight, many respondents wanted access to two common social learning resources: mentors and peer networks.  The "wow" moment for me remains that they offered those needs independently, in a setting that offered no suggestion or prompt, and that the threads leading to the themes were pretty strong.

When offered the opportunity to share what they really wanted and needed to enhance their board chair experience after the fact, many described social learning resources.

Formal learning (Education)

I'm not sure what I expected to find here, to be honest. We included formal learning options in the "helpful information resources" question, but responses show that chairs simply did not access them in their preparation for the role.  Now, especially when viewed within the 70:20:10 lens, that makes sense. Formal learning experiences account for a comparatively small source of how adults actually learn. However, in an environment where training frequently is the default learning mode or the perceived solution to all of our board problems, I maybe expected to see more evidence that they turned to formal learning sources to prepare for this new leadership responsibility (at least among those who said they prepared).

But formal learning experiences popped up in comments in two surprising places. One was in the "hindsight" question, where desires for different kinds of training experiences formed one of the four big themes I found. Where that became surprising for me was in the context of the reported lack of access taken in the "information" question. So many of the types of formal learning experiences many sought in hindsight were the very resources that they said they did not access in preparation for the role.

The other surprise, which I acknowledged in the post reflecting on "other" responses to the "people" and "information" questions," was a small but notable minority of respondents who described participating in not only formal learning experiences but courses offered in academic settings. Whether a part of a formal degree program or a certification, they took part in, and drew value from, courses on nonprofit board/leadership-related topics. I teach in both settings. A small part of me took great pleasure  in those references.

Thinking about how the data fit 70:20:10 may be a creative stretch, one too far from a formal research analysis standpoint. But I'm finding that this process is helping me to expand my understanding of the preparation numbers from a practical standpoint. It's also an attempt to apply one adult/workplace learning framework to data that we have so far viewed only through governance lenses. There is more to learn about board chairs' preparation when adult learning theories and models are applied. That is part of my process as a researcher tied to this work.

I have at least one, maybe two, more posts on the preparation side of our survey data. I'm debating whether I want to proceed with analysis of the other section of the survey. In the meantime, I'm interested in your thoughts, suggestions, etc., on what I have laid out here.

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.