When you travel from New York to London, the shortest flight is about 6 hours and 45 minutes. When you return, the shortest flight is an hour longer. Flying east, we have tailwinds helping us along. Flying west, we’re pushing against headwinds.
Every time we make a plan, we’re also making assumptions. Some assumptions are simple and pretty universal – we all experience headwinds and tailwinds in flight.
But other times we are making assumptions based on our own experiences, sometimes unaware of the headwinds and tailwinds that are helping and hindering us.
For example, if you ask me how far the nearest Target store is, I’ll answer that it’s about 10 minutes from my home. Unconsciously, I’m assuming you have a car. If my neighbor doesn’t have a car, it will typically take over an hour – walk to the bus stop, take a bus several miles in the opposite direction from Target, so he can change to the bus that will take him there.
My tailwind is that I have a car and enough money to pay the insurance and fill the tank. His headwind is that he doesn’t have a car. Worse, he also has the headwind that he’s working two jobs, so the time it takes to get to Target is an even greater chunk out of his free time than it would be from mine. He’s flying west, while I’m flying east.
It takes conscious effort to parse out the advantages and obstacles – tailwinds and headwinds – that make up our personal experience, so we can more clearly see the advantages and obstacles of others.
When we makes plans, our first inclination is to think about what works for us. What do we like, what resources do we have – time, cash, knowledge – that we can employ. Planning based on our own experience may work if everyone is just like us – same background, same experiences, same resources.
But our clients, patrons, staff members and visitors are not all the same.
To successfully serve the community, we have to consciously find ways to understand our clients’, patrons’, staff members’ and visitors’ experiences. Not just what the headwinds (and tailwinds) are, but also their ramifications. I may have known that my neighbor didn’t have a car; that doesn’t mean I understood what the implications were when it came to shopping and the decisions they force you to make. If you have to go through that much trouble to shop at Target, then it may make sense to pay the higher prices at the local bodega. The ramifications of one situation affect the next, which affect the next.
Before digging into the myriad of experiences of clients, patrons, staff and visitors, take time to consider the headwinds you’ve encountered growing up and getting to where you are in life. Then stop and consider all the tailwinds that have helped you on your way – the mentors, the education, sustenance, the visits to cultural institutions.
Which of these are universal? Which are uniquely yours? Which make you wonder about the tailwinds and headwinds of others?
To schedule a time to explore your board and staff headwinds and tailwinds, reach Susan Detwiler at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.detwiler.com.
How well did you know the other people on your board before they (or you) joined?
Were you good friends? Did you live near each other? Did you work together? If you’ve read this blog for a while, you’ll probably expect me to tell you – again – that boards need diversity. It helps with innovation, it avoids tokenism, it promotes sustainability.
I’m not the only one writing about it. Many studies, like here and here, show that diversity increases the success of a group or an organization. Whether we say we need diverse viewpoints, diverse backgrounds, diverse experiences, or diverse voices, it all translates into this: groups perform better in the long run if they are not homogeneous.
Network analysis gives us an insight into why this might be especially true when it comes to finding knowledge and resources.
Mark Granovetter posited that information flows through weak ties more than through strong ties. If you travel in the same circles and have the same friends, you are said to have strong ties with each other. If you happen to know someone whose circle is different, but don’t interact frequently with them, you are said to have weak ties.
These acquaintances are exposed to different ideas and different information than you are. So when you interact with these acquaintances, you are then exposed to new information that your strong ties do not have. In the words of Skye Bender-deMoll,
“although your close friend may work harder to help you get a new job, it is likely to be an acquaintance that actually gets you a useful lead.”
Let’s extrapolate that to your organization. If most of the board travels in the same circles, their knowledge of resources is more likely to be similar than when members of the board come from diverse communities.
But if different members of the board have different networks, they bring those networks with them when they come to the board table. Along with their different experiences, they bring different knowledge and different entrees to resources.
As boards emerge from the founding stage, they tend to seek people with ‘deep pockets,’ implying that money is the only resource that matters. However, dollars are only one kind of resource; they are often a proxy for the resources that are really needed. They seek dollars because dollars can buy the resources that are needed to fulfill the mission: staff, rent, supplies. But resources come in many forms: community good will, contacts with particular skills, potential clients, individuals with elbow grease, advocates in different communities.
In many cases, the tangible resources themselves are available, without having to expend dollars – if you have the contacts that can bring them in.
By diversifying the composition of your board, you increase the number of weak ties for your organization. Weak ties multiply the opportunities for finding and developing resources that make it possible to fulfill your mission.
Why is diversity on your board important? More voices, more viewpoints, AND MORE KNOWLEDGE AND RESOURCES.
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What makes you different from another institution? Why are there 5 different gardens? Why 8 different homeless shelters? Why 6 different animal welfare organizations?
What are YOU?
Can you answer that question without resorting to “we are not them?” A lot of things are not them. What are YOU?
If you can answer that question, then you can lead your institution, making decisions that affirm your identity, while discarding those that are at odds with who you are and aspire to be.
If your staff can answer that question, then your identity becomes implanted in the minds of your clients and stakeholders, because their every act reflects that conviction of who you are.
If your board can answer that question, then they can stand in front of legislators, funders, neighbors, and friends, and affirm your identity in the minds of your community.
This is who you are
It is this identity that you bring to the table when collaborating with your peers. In collaboration, you each bring resources and skills to the table. How do your peers see themselves? What is their identity? What do they bring to the table? How are you complementary?
It is this identity that colors your pitch when you talk to government officials, about how you and your peers can work together, knowing who will bring which skills and expertise, and why each of you are necessary.
You can see this at work in America’s Garden Capital. The Philadelphia area is considered America’s Garden Capital, with more than 30 public gardens, arboreta, and historic landscapes within 30 miles of the city. They’ve joined together to promote the region, while retaining their own unique identities. One promotes native plants; another has manicured French and English style formal gardens; another mixes outdoor sculpture with extensive grounds.
This is how you make decisions
With firm identities, they promote themselves individually and collectively, boosting their attendance. If an opportunity comes along that doesn’t match their identity, it is easier to reject the opportunity, and actively seek more suitable opportunities. If there are five conferences to which they could send their staff, they consider which ones are most congruent with furthering their mission – the decision is easier to make. If funds are limited, they consider which capital improvement supports their identity, and decide accordingly.
Understanding what defines your organization and what you stand for is a critical foundation for decision-making. It is part and parcel of manifesting your values and priorities in the direction and actions you take. It creates a unified understanding of who you are, across board, staff, constituents and community.
Affirming this identity is integral to a solid strategic planning framework.
What’s your identity?
Board retreats, all-staff meetings, strategic planning, community convening – any time people get together to accomplish a goal, it’s important that the work gets done.
But getting the work of the meeting done doesn’t mean that the results of the meeting will get executed once everyone leaves. If the participants didn’t really participate, there’s a good chance they haven’t bought into the result. If the facilitator is busy worrying about running the meeting, she doesn’t have a chance to express her own views. Worse, she deliberately refrains from expressing her own views for fear of influencing the group.
Just as important as getting the work of the retreat done, is that each participant believes in the result and can support it. An external facilitator brings important skills to the process, and makes it possible for every person in the room to participate fully.
An external facilitator can see and hear things that have gradually become part of the organization culture, but have not been acknowledged.
An external facilitator can acknowledge the roles of each participant, without the participants having to stand up for themselves or toot their own horns. While board members and staff may be reluctant to talk about the extra burdens of a decision, a facilitator can ensure that both strengths and challenges are acknowledged.
An external facilitator does not have to worry about the effect of any particular discussion on themselves. By bringing objective decision-making tools to the group, facilitators acknowledge, and then mitigate, emotion-laden arguments.
Attention to Tension
An external facilitator can help the group attend to underlying tensions, because they are not a part of the tensions themselves. Noticing and acknowledging the tension is part of their work, and their neutrality allows them to gain trust from each party.
Each organization is unique; the people involved have individual personalities and experiences. An external facilitator brings to the group their experience in gaining trust and accomplishing goals with many different personalities and situations.
An external facilitator stays current on plans and tools for assuring that meetings and retreats accomplish their goals. From interviewing participants, to crafting agendas, to managing the meeting, and facilitating decisions, the facilitator brings discipline to the process of decision-making and planning.
This is the season when plans are being made for board retreats, summits and community convening. Who’s going to facilitate YOUR meetings?
It’s easy to dive into pressing board business immediately after bringing the meeting to order. Urgent matters float to the top of every agenda.
But there’s a difference between urgent and important. And the important stuff isn’t addressed until it becomes urgent.
Board Education is Important
Each board member has a lot of knowledge, but they don’t all know the same things. When it comes to board responsibilities, there are frequently gaps in their knowledge – and they’re not the same gaps.
It’s like people who are self-taught. They don’t know what they don’t know. They’re very, very good at what they do – until they reach something they didn’t know they needed to know.
A healthy board has a mix of experienced and new directors. If you’ve been on the board for a while, it’s easy to forget that newer members don’t have your institutional knowledge and experience. It’s also easy to forget that as society changes over time, what you know may need updating. new directors may have great ideas and community experience, but little knowledge of board responsibilities.
What happens? Board discussions go around in circles. Individual gaps in knowledge create confusion and misunderstanding. Directors assume they agree on definitions, when each defines the topic differently.
All of a sudden, board education becomes urgent.
How do I get my board to fundraise? How do I get my board members to stop dwelling on the past? How do I get my new directors to listen to the wisdom in the room? How do I get older directors to listen to the new ones? How do I get my board members on the same page?
Why wait until it’s urgent?
Based on a quote from President Eisenhower, Urgent and Important are very different:
- Important activities have an outcome that leads to us achieving our goals, whether these are professional or personal.
- Urgent activities demand immediate attention, and are usually associated with achieving someone else’s goals. They are often the ones we concentrate on and they demand attention because the consequences of not dealing with them are immediate.
Since you know that you have a great variety of talents and experience around the table, why not conduct board education with intentionality. Get in front of the Urgent, by paying attention to the Important.
It is important for board members to all have the same language and understanding when talking about decisions. It saves time, avoids misunderstanding, and improves the relationships. The net result is greater peer to peer responsibility. It avoids ambiguity, and frequently avoids creating urgent situations.
Sit down with the governance committee and consider what each board member needs to know and to have in order to be a strong contributor to the work of the board. It may be specific skills – like reading the financials. It may be in-depth understanding of the strategic plan and their role in it. There are a lot things that go into being an effective board member.
How to Introduce Board Education
At the start of each year, consider the knowledge, experience and skill sets of your board members. What gaps are there? What knowledge do some have, but not others? Where do there seem to be problems with communication? What knowledge do new members bring to the table that returning members could benefit from? What knowledge do returning members have that would help acclimatize new members?
You’ll likely find that there are a lot of gaps. The exercise provides a foundation for introducing the idea to your board, giving directors a solid rationale for regular board education.
Then schedule regular board education, instead of waiting until it’s urgent.
Build a culture of continuous improvement. You do it for your programs – now introduce it to your board.