In preparing for your role as board chair, how helpful was advice from the following people?
As an adult educator and member of the research team, certain questions from the Alliance for Nonprofit Management’s survey of nonprofit board chairs interested me more than others. This is one of those questions.
If we combine responses from the “helpful and “very helpful” columns, they line up this way:
- Observing previous chair(s) – 70.22 percent
- The CEO – 57.87 percent
- Other – 57.7 percent
- Outgoing board chair – 49.67 percent
- Friends with board chair experience – 41.79 percent
- Coach or consultant – 16.76 percent
Makes sense, right? To a large extent, we model ourselves – or at least how we behave as leaders of our board – on the example set by those who came before us. Unless that person was a total nightmare, we probably don’t have a lot of motivation to step too far away from what worked for our predecessor. We also probably consult with the person before us, seeking advice about what he or she found most helpful and what he or she might have done differently.
We trust the CEO to guide us in the best interests of the organization, drawing from his or her experiences working with different chairs over the years. We may ask friends serving on other boards how they handle the responsibilities and ask for advice about what makes an effective chair.
Coaches and consultants can be great resources for new board leaders. But experience as a consultant tells me that (a) many don’t know that coaching for that board role is an option and (b) many who are aware do not have the funds, or do not see the value in expending the funds, for those services. That this item fell at the bottom of the list (69.54 percent chose “not applicable”) should surprise no one.
As a member of the research team, I found myself balancing two types of responses throughout the data analysis process – well, mostly squashing one because it was out of place in our team discussions.
There was the researcher role, able to share the survey data and offer some informed analysis based on what those data showed us. In this case, researcher me says that, based on the responses, access to the previous chair(s) – observation and interaction – and counsel from the CEO were most helpful of the options presented to survey respondents. That is what we can glean from this particular question, and that’s useful information.
There also was the other voice whispering in my ear – the consultant-with-board-experience – that now gets a bit of a say (part of my motivation for this series: get that voice out of my head after three years and into this space). That voice has a practice observation to share, based on the data.
While I know it’s also a function of the question as written, I’m seeing that the most relied-upon sources are internal. We go to those closest – our previous chair, our CEO, our experienced friends – for advice about how to lead our board. To the extent that our processes and leadership traditions are functional and effective, that’s a good thing. If it works, it works.
But what if that example is a dysfunctional or ineffective one? What if we don’t know that “the way we do things” falls short of what the board should be doing or is counterproductive to its ultimate (even unacknowledged) responsibilities? What if the CEO has a vested interest in the board focusing attention and energy one one set of problems and questions and away from others? What if that CEO’s understanding of what the board should be doing is incomplete?
When juxtaposed with the information-accessed data shared last week, I’m not seeing many opportunities to explore other ways to lead effectively – which fits results of a third survey question shared in our report: 51 percent of respondents said they did nothing specific to prepare for their new role as board chair.
To the extent that our boards do a credible job of providing the current leadership and oversight, and to the extent that some of our boards are governing in exemplary and transformative ways, that’s an okay thing. Keep doing what we’re doing, and we’ll all be just fine.
But are all of our boards governing to their full potential? Do they understand the full scope of not just their bottom line oversight responsibilities but their strategic and generative/visionary purposes? Do they know there are different perspectives on what it means to govern? Different models?
Are our board leaders really prepared to stretch members in productive ways as they fulfill their responsibilities? To create generative thinking and deliberation in meetings that bring out the best in participants? That hold members accountable and supports their learning and capacity building needs so that they can be successful?
That’s where our leaders benefit from exposure to ideas and resources from somewhere other than their own boardrooms. That’s where coaches and peers with different kinds of governance experiences offer other perspectives and approaches to leadership. That’s where reading that book from the local library, or attending a webinar, or exploring blogs and other internet information sources become informative.
Researcher me can say to you, this is what we know about helpful resources, based on the data. Practitioner me now gets to say, so what are we going to do about that?
I had intended to offer some observations about the open-ended responses in this post. (That 57.7 percent describing “other” as helpful or very helpful begs for discussion, and there are some intriguing insights in the comments.) But given the length of this post so far, I think I’ll save that for a separate entry.
What are your reactions to the data above?
How do they match or depart from your experiences?
What questions do they bring up for you?
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.