Do your board members feel responsible to one another?
Responsible to the organization should be a given. But do the board members feel responsible to each other?
On two recent occasions, I asked board members of very different organizations
“What does it look like when you feel engaged?” “What actions do engaged board members take?”
Both groups generated long lists of excellent responses. Perhaps you see yourself in these:
- They are reflective / evaluative
- Work where help is needed
- Contribute their resources / time / $$ / social capital
- Contribute to discussions
- Accept responsibility and following through
- Evangelize for the organization / actively open doors
- Communicate respectfully, candidly
- Have the confidence to speak up
- Are visionary / forward looking
But when asked
“Why are you engaged with THIS organization?”
the importance of relationships came through in answers that included:
- It offers committed intimate relationships
- “I don’t want to let down my peers”
I don’t want to let down my peers.
When the board member said this, the others around the table started nodding. They said things like, “I know they’re counting on me.”
In the rich discussions that followed, many commented on the relationships they each have with others around the board table. They know they can count on each other. They know who the others are – personally, not just by title.
Getting to know each other as individuals leads to a greater investment in the success of the others around the table. Looking for the success of the organization should be a given. But seeking success for your peers implies relationships that are built upon trust and personal knowledge of each other. Seeking success for your peers leads to a greater ability to work together in both good times and bad.
When Google analyzed their teams to find out why some teams worked better together than others, they discovered that it wasn’t the composition of the teams that made the difference, it was whether they created a shared purpose and shared culture. The team leaders took the time to allow team members to know each other as people, not merely functions.
“Google’s intense data collection and number crunching have led it to the same conclusions that good managers have always known. In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs.”
When someone joins a board, there is the expectation of spending several hours a month working with others. Making those hours worthwhile from a personal as well as professional standpoint increases the satisfaction they get from the work, and enhances their enthusiasm for doing it.
In a board or staff setting, making time for conversation and getting to know each other creates relationships that work like a web among the participants. Individuals feel responsible to each other, and “don’t want to let down my peers.”
Boards are not monolithic. Acknowledge that each member is an individual, and create time for sharing life.
What would it make possible if you started the meeting with, what good things happened in your life since we were last together?
Change the question; change perspective.
With a pile of work in front of you, or any job that needs doing, do you automatically ask, “How am I going to get all that done?”
In years of working with very different nonprofit leaders, I’ve noticed that’s a common response. It’s especially true among people who are givers at heart – you know, the ones who are quick to volunteer and give their time, or those who went into community benefit work because they’re innately programmed to help others.
Consider these three recent situations:
- The executive director of a start-up nonprofit looked at everything that needed to be done, and said, “How can I do all this?”
- The board chair of a mid-sized nonprofit, seeking new board members, asked, “How can I get people to serve on the board?”
- The facilitator of an online community asked herself, “How can I get more people engaged?”
In each of these [real] scenarios, there is a common thread. In each case, the protagonist used the pronoun, “I.”
We all do this. From the person putting on the gala, to the volunteers in our house of worship, to the grantwriter, to the team leader, to the CEO and board chair. When we’re asked what we’re working on, we talk about a project and then say, “I have to…..,” and list all the things we have to do
Faced with everything we have to do we get a knot in our stomachs. Sometimes, it’s downright terrifying. The burden is on our shoulders, and if we don’t get it done, we’re letting down our clients, our coworkers, our fellow volunteers, ourselves.
Is that really true? Is it really all on our shoulders? What if we reframe the scenarios and ask a different question?
In the case of the start-up nonprofit, consider what changes if we ask,
“What would it take to get all this done?”
When the ED heard that reframe, it opened up a host of new opportunities. Instead of feeling alone with the job, he listed what would need to be in place for the job to get done, then objectively considered different ways to get them done – by anyone, not just himself. Instead of diving in, he started thinking of others who could make it happen.
For the board chair, we reframed the question from “how do I get people to be on the board?” to “what would it take for people to be able to join the board?” Instead of presenting the yes-no question to a prospect, the board chair started asking them, “what would it take for you to be able to say yes?” Potential board members started considering the possibilities, instead of the constrictions.
The facilitator of the online community completely reframed the engagement question. Instead, she invited all the participants of the community to online meetings in which she asked, “what would you like to be engaged in?” “What would you like to see and be part of?” “What would make it possible for people to be engaged?” With the different iterations of the reframing, the discussion became more dynamic, as participants saw themselves stepping into roles they may never have considered before.
What would it take to……?
This simple reframing moves the thought process away from burden and toward possibilities. It works for individuals, and for entire organizations.
The next time an opportunity arises, try moving from ‘we can’t do….’ to ‘what would it take for us to be able to do…..?’
Let me know what happens!
Or if you’d like to know more about facilitating these kinds of discussions.
Things fall through the cracks. They just do. Not often. But they do.
Sometimes it’s because we have too much on our plates. Sometimes, an emergency or a rush job came up, and our mind is focused on that. But sometimes, everything is going along smoothly, and things still fall through the cracks, because everyone thinks it’s someone else’s job.
As a recovering control freak, I used to be the one who made sure that everything got done. To me, the path of least resistance was for me to do it.
But as a consultant, that’s the very worst thing I could do. My job is to let YOU do it; it’s YOUR job to take responsibility and figure out how to do it yourself, so eventually, you don’t need me.
So what do I do? I make sure you end your meetings affirming who is doing what, by when.
Whether it’s a nine month long strategic planning project, a one day planning retreat, or any meeting in which a decision is made, they all end the same way:
Who is doing what? By when? How will you know it’s done?
I was working with one multi-faceted organization whose executive director had announced he was retiring in two years. Despite general dismay, after four months the board had not yet formulated a plan for finding his successor. I was asked to get them started.
At a full day retreat, we spent the morning envisioning the future of the organization and the CEO qualities that would help that future become reality. Then, over lunch, I let it ‘slip’ about being a recovering control freak. Through general laughter, I told them that the way I managed it was by making sure THEY knew what they were going to do, and how they were going to do it.
That afternoon, we mapped out how they would go about finding a successor: what research they would need, what data they would want, what the board, staff, and other constituents would need. Then, about an hour before adjourning, I reminded them of my ‘recovering control freak’ statement, and asked:
“Now that you’ve decided what you’re going to do, who is going to be responsible for making sure it gets done?
“You don’t have to be the one that does it, but you’re the one who stays on top of it, and makes sure it’s accomplished.
“Who’s job is it?”
Then, when that person self-identified, the next question was,
“Great! By when? When will this goal be completed?”
“When will you have that first committee meeting? When will you have the first progress report to the board?”
Those milestones were entered into the plan, and the Board Chair keeps track of who is doing what. The milestones give the entire board an opportunity to reflect on whether the progress needs to be speeded up or the goals amended.
By coaching the Board and Staff on building their own accountability into their plans, I satisfy my control freak tendencies, and enable the excellent members of the leadership team to step up.
A win-win result all around.
It’s common parlance to refer to ‘the same old tape we play over in our heads.’ The phrase comes from the time (remember it?) when we used cassettes and 8-tracks to replay the same songs over and over again. It is a fitting metaphor for the implication, since the phrase actually references an old technology.
The same way those old tapes we play in our heads recall old situations and old behaviors.
Every time we encounter a person we’ve known for a long time, old tapes start playing. We know what the person believes and thinks, and how they will behave. There isn’t any need to ask questions, since we assume we already know the answers they’ll give. Our response to their behaviors falls into patterns, as do their responses to ours. It’s a great shortcut.
But what if that old tape is no longer current? Stretching the metaphor further, what if there’s a great new cover for the song? The theme song for the original show One Day at a Time, “This is It,” was performed by Polly Cutter in a bouncy, upbeat genre, very fitting to the 1970’s – 1980’s period. The new version of the same theme song, now sung by Gloria Estefan, is updated to fit the times. The Latin beat is different, while the underlying bones of the song are the same.
When we encounter someone we’ve known for a long time, the old tapes may no longer reflect who that person is now. They are still the same person, but they’ve learned and experienced new things. They’ve developed new ways of thinking. Their responses to situations are different.
If we don’t take the time to get to know who they are now, we continue playing the old tapes, and they respond with their own old tapes.
This has strategic implications for boards and group dynamics.
When board members or participants in a group think they know each other very well, what’s really happening is that they know what the old tapes sound like. They make assumptions about what the others around the room believe, think, feel and know, based on those old tapes. As a result, some topics of conversation are avoided or ignored, or they are cyclical rehashes of old arguments, originally recorded years ago.
These tapes tether the group to the past, and hinder building a new future together. Interrupting those narratives takes conscious effort, but it’s worth making that effort. Genuinely knowing the others around the table helps create trust, crucial in building consensus around decisions. The new knowledge about each other opens up participants to new ideas.
Questions interrupt the narratives we tell ourselves.
Questions are key to learning new things about others.
Asking questions elicits new knowledge that may contradict or augment those old tapes. In groups that meet regularly, such as boards, it helps to begin each meeting with a question that gives each participant the time to share something new. In groups that meet infrequently, or in retreats, more time is needed. Old tapes have had plenty of time to become habit so set aside time specifically for getting to know each other.
What can you learn about each other that may surprise you? What can you learn that will change your assumptions about each other?
Questions interrupt the narratives we tell ourselves.
Questions alter the tapes we play.
Questions open us up to new possibilities.
Facilitated meetings make it easier to ask these questions. For more tips about changing group culture, building an engaged board, and strategic planning, follow me at www.detwiler.com, or reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Is this a familiar scenario? You follow up on every obligation to your boss, or your board chair, or your spouse. But when you vow to do something for yourself, it keeps moving to the bottom of the list.
Promises to others are easy to keep. You want to help. They’re relying on you. You see and feel the disappointment on their faces when you don’t deliver. That’s true whether it’s a work obligation or a promise to your family.
But when you make a promise to yourself, somehow it doesn’t happen. That promise to make time to plan the future stays just that – a promise. That vow to take an hour a week to keep up on best practices in board governance falls by the wayside. Somehow these promises keep being put off. We’ll get to them “when I have time.”
After all, it’s not going to affect anyone else. Or is it?
You may think you’re only disappointing yourself, but what about everyone who relies on you to be at your best? What about all the people whom your newly gained knowledge or deep thinking will help?
That time you spend on self-discovery or professional development are obligations to others, as well as to yourself. It is part of the fabric of our world that what we do for ourselves affects those around us.
Of course, we can resolve to make obligations to our own self-improvement as high a priority as obligations to others. But if this resolution is like most others, by February it will be broken.
Instead, make a more fundamental resolution. Resolve to find the system that will lead you to making that time for self-improvement.
People go where systems lead them. Great baseball players know that merely resolving to randomize their pitches doesn’t work. But giving themselves a trigger – like pitching a curve ball every time they glance up and see a ‘3’ on the scoreboard clock – they’ve created a system to randomize the pitches.
People go where systems lead them. By creating a system that works for you, you’re creating a condition for success.
- It may be finding an accountability partner; finding someone whom you respect who will hold you accountable for the promises you make to yourself.
- It may be finding a trigger that prompts you to take time whenever that trigger occurs – like immediately following a regularly scheduled call.
- It may be scheduling, far in advance, a series of half-day trips.
Instead of resolving to improve yourself, resolve to create that system that will lead to that self-improvement.
Happy New Year! May we all go from strength to strength in 2017!
Photo credit: By Desde mes de diciembre – Canal 1 Posadas Misiones, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23538873