Build a More Engaged Board

Build a More Engaged Board

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
  • Energetic

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?

Confession of a Control-Freak Consultant

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?”

and then,

“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.

Are Old Tapes Hindering Group Progress?

Are Old Tapes Hindering Group Progress?

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, or reach me at

Star Trek, Nonprofits and Ideals

Star Trek, Nonprofits and Ideals

I grew up on Star Trek – not just the show, but the idealistic vision of a future in which a United Federation of Planets could boldly go where no one has gone before, seeking out new life forms and new civilizations. Conquest was wrong. Help was right. People got along.

I once had a conversation with my son about the original Star Trek, and how it differed from subsequent versions. In the original Star Trek, each show was a parable, a small morality tale, in which we were being taught about right and wrong. True, the writers were sometimes (often?) heavy handed with their messages. Nevertheless, through the interplay of the emotional Kirk, the logical Spock, and the pragmatic and sometimes cynical Bones or other characters, we saw different sides and different approaches to the same situation. Usually, the resolution came about through some combination of the first two, aided by the actions or intervention of the other characters.

I wonder how many nonprofit executives and philanthropists received their initial grounding in the possibilities of a better world through watching Star Trek. Is the idealism that surrounds so much of our work the product not just of faith and parenting, but also those small glimpses into a better world?  Like M&Ms coated in sugar candy, the ideals were coated in action, costumes, and amusing interplay between characters whom we came to know and predict. We thought we were just watching a fun show, but we were being molded.

In retrospect, I suspect that I was affected by Star Trek; not just by the shows themselves, but by the implicit approval given to those messages by my parents as we watched together.

Looking around the table at board and staff meetings, do you know what has molded your colleagues? We now have four generations working and serving together. What television shows, books or movies formed their ideals? What are their cultural touchpoints? Through what lenses do they view the world?

A good board is not homogeneous. Each member brings their own history and ideals. What would it make possible if you were to create time to explore these cultural references together? What bonding might occur? Might understanding and then trust increase as the conversations unfolded?

Business can occur mechanically, or it can occur in an atmosphere of trust and camaraderie. Would could you accomplish if you took the time to learn about each other before embarking on the future?

Note: portions of this post were originally posted May 22, 2009.

Explicit Values or I’ll Know Them When I See Them

Explicit Values or I’ll Know Them When I See Them


Personally and professionally, individually and collectively, we show our values whether or not we acknowledge it. Recently, three very different bloggers wrote about values, and an article in a professional journal pointed to its importance.

Mark Chusill wrote for Harvard Business Review, Keep a List of Unethical Things You’ll Never Do. Vu Lee, the nonprofit executive who writes the Nonprofit with Balls blog, authored, Why Organization Values are So Sexy. Mark Leach and Laurie Mazur, in Nonprofit Quarterly, explained their necessity in Creating Culture: Promising Practices of Successful Movement Networks. And Seth Godin wrote the pithy post, Where’s the Money.

Chusill emphasized that staying constantly aware of our personal values keeps us off the slippery slope of doing unethical things. No one enters the workplace straight from school and says, “I’m going to cheat people, and skim funds, and cover up mistakes.” But one time you’re short; you “borrow” from a client’s funds and pay it back from profits. It doesn’t backfire, so you do it again. Each time it becomes easier. Yet if someone asked you if it was okay to steal, you’d say no.  Really? Your actions say differently.

Lee writes about making an organization’s values explicit. Instead of high sounding words on the wall, illustrate values with examples.  If one of the organization’s values is Community, then it becomes everyone’s job to stop and greet each person who comes into the office. The value of Integrity explicitly becomes, We communicate our needs and expectations openly, and do not get angry at others’ failures to fulfill expectations we never clearly set.” As Lee writes, this has helped his organization avoid internal conflicts, since so much conflict is really communications failure.

Beyond individuals and organizations, Leach and Mazur discovered that leaders of successful movements share the principle of being “relentlessly explicit about values, principles, and practices.” Along with being flexible and embracing change, these leaders live the culture that they are creating, and reinforce the network culture through their actions. Leaders openly point out when they miss the mark, explicitly returning to the agreed upon values.

Unlike Mission and Vision, values come from within. How will you act? What can you do to ensure that you act the way that you hope you will?

In your organization, what do your values look like in action? Do you believe it’s important for a person to be able to provide for themselves? Then what do you do when you realize your full-time employees are on food stamps? If you honor confidentiality, what if a major funder requires the name of each student who receives reduced tuition as a condition of her gift?

In the world of coalitions and alliances, if you value civility in interactions among people, what is your response when the head of one organization undermines the authority of a peer?

As Lee points out, Values often sound great, but are not so easy to make concrete. Bringing everyone together and asking, “what does it look like in action” takes time, but it clarifies how you work together. It defines how you manifest your values in the work of your organization and your movement.

It is a worthy use of time at your next board retreat. What does your values statement say? What does it look like – in action?

More about organization and network values and planning – at the board and organization-wide level – at The Detwiler Group.

It’s February. Do you know where your strategic plan is?

It’s February. Do you know where your strategic plan is?

You probably spent time and money developing a strategic plan. Your board voted to approve it. Perhaps a board committee created it; maybe your executive director and senior staff.

Where is it now? That big report sitting on the shelf isn’t going to do your organization any good if it’s not a living document.

When did you last pull out the strategic plan and track your progress toward your goals?  When was the last time the board spent more than 10 minutes discussing that progress?

It’s a lovely plan, but…..

A plan without discrete steps, a timeline and accountability isn’t a plan. It’s a wish list. Here are a few tips for maintaining your progress, so that 3 years from now you can look back and say, “We did this!”

  • Make sure you have the will to accomplish the plan. This may seem obvious, but it’s often the first pitfall. “It’s a lovely plan, and really, this is what we want to accomplish. But…..we don’t have the money; the time; the people; the skills”…..whatever.  If you truly commit to the plan, then you find the money, the time, the people, the skills. It may not happen immediately, but it will never happen without making that commitment.
  • Make sure that someone is accountable for each step of the plan. They may not be the person who actually, physically does the work, but someone has to be on top of whether it happens or not. Otherwise, everyone thinks it’s someone else’s job.
  • Have those accountable people regularly report to the board. The entire board voted to move ahead with the plan; the entire board should be invested in whether the plan is being accomplished. If you have to report regularly, then you get it done. If it’s not done, then here’s your opportunity to talk about how to get back on track. 

“If anything is certain, it is that change is certain. The world we are planning for today will not exist in this form tomorrow.”  Phil Crosby

  • Regularly set aside time to discuss the overall progress, not just individual steps. Is the plan still relevant? Do new circumstances warrant changes? No matter how good your plan is, you can’t foresee everything that might happen in the course of three years. The government may cut funding. You may receive a huge bequest. Some new research may come to light.
  • Celebrate the milestones. It took a lot of work to craft the plan. It takes even more work to execute it. Recognize that work and what you accomplish. Tell your stakeholders about your progress. Let these celebrations create momentum to lead you to even higher heights.

Engage your board in keeping the strategic plan a living document. It may sit on a shelf, but it won’t get dusty. You’ll regularly reference it in board meetings, and watch the progress toward your goals. Potential board members will see your commitment, and want to be a part of your growth.

Theodor Herzl wrote,

“If you will it, it is no dream. And if you do not will it, a dream it is and a dream it will stay.

The first step is commitment. If you have the will, you can accomplish the rest.