How to Create a Culture of Board Education

How to Create a Culture of Board Education

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.

Credit www.mindtools.com

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.

Need a Reason for Board Committees? Here are Six.

Need a Reason for Board Committees? Here are Six.

(Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

It happens all the time, especially when a board is transitioning from a working board to a governing board. The organization grows. It gets more complicated. Board members used to being involved in everything have trouble releasing the details and focusing on the bigger picture.

If the role of the board is to focus on mission and not minutiae, what will make that possible?

What will make it possible to pay special attention to the financial oversight role? Staying informed is important, but the specifics of watching the checkbook and investments; researching where funds should be invested; and drafting financial policies are not everyone’s forté. The specific, detailed work that goes into reviewing the current financials, the research, and the drafting are more easily done by a smaller group of people with financial literacy.

What will make it possible to completely revamp your community relations? Each board member has a role to play in advocacy and public relations, but developing the plan takes expertise. Identifying opportunities for board participation, PR outlets, messaging, advocacy timeline are more easily accomplished by a smaller group of people with community relations and advocacy experience.

Far from removing responsibility from the board, committees are vehicles for building the board by:

  1. Engaging board members more closely in important work that intimately and explicitly uses their expertise. Why did Carlos come on the board in the first place? What’s his passion and talent? Let him loose!
  2. Creating opportunities for recruiting strong board members, who have an interest in the organization and now have experience with the organization. Not sure if Jenna is a good fit? Invite her to help on a committee! After working together, she can decide whether she wants to be more involved, and you can see if she’d do well on the board.
  3. Strengthening the board knowledge base by bringing in individuals who don’t want board service but who want to offer their expertise. Is Shenay an HR lawyer with a heavy travel schedule? A board position may not fit her life right now, but she may be happy to provide guidance on a committee.
  4. Bolstering long-term engagement and retaining institutional memory and by including board members rotating off the board. Did Max roll off the board after two full terms? It’s a shame to lose his passion and his relationships. Is he a good fit for the community relations committee?
  5. Enhancing staff – board interactions. Board members typically have little direct experience with staff. But Board member Howard and program director Lisette together research what it will take to develop the metrics they need.
  6. Streamlining board meetings so the full board can focus on strategy and direction instead of minutiae. With functioning committees, Maureen can chair the board meetings knowing that the background research on the strategic issues has been done. There are people at the table who can answer relevant questions, and the full board can spend time on discussing the implications.

Engage board members, staff and passionate newcomers on committees that use their talents and interests. It’s a pathway to a more engaged and strategic board.

Now…and in the future.

Can you share responsibility and maintain accountability?

Can you share responsibility and maintain accountability?

The authoritarian approach to management – top down, we know best, we’ll make the decisions, you just do it – is usually pretty good at demanding accountability.  It is the Board that answers the questions:

  • Who will take on this task?
  • When will it be accomplished?
  • How will we know when it’s accomplished?

But nonprofit management is shifting from authoritarian to stewardship* – where the board and Executive Director/CEO are partners.

Further on the spectrum, many organizations are shifting to the stakeholder style, in which different groups are represented on the board.

Even further, and many organizations have democratic decision making. Community members, staff, board, administration are all involved in steering the organization.

Most organizations are a blend of two or more of these management approaches, but as authoritarian approaches diminish, what does that mean for accountability?

If there is no single entity at the top that tells you what to do, and punishes you if you don’t do it, how do you make sure it’s going to get done?

Accountability is not just top-down. According Merriam-Webster, accountability means “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions”

An obligation or a willingness to accept responsibility.

Accountability can be self-imposed; as management styles evolve to become more participatory, self-imposed accountability emerges.

As responsibility for the organization and outcomes shifts from the top downward, individuals at all levels participate in crafting the desired outcome. Participants become invested in its success. They decide that it’s an important goal; a goal that they want to be part of, take ownership of, and work to accomplish.

This is where accountability is triggered. As an individual takes ownership of some aspect of the project, they answer the first of the three questions:

  • Who will take on this task?

But the next two questions must also be answered:

  • When will this task be accomplished?
  • How will we know when it’s accomplished?

As soon as someone takes the lead on a task, it should become automatic that the next two questions are asked and answered.

A strategic plan crafted by multiple constituents will be enthusiastically embraced. It will have major goals and strategies. But even as responsibility broadens, the questions remain. With every decision, in every meeting:

  • Who will take on this task?
  • When will it be accomplished?
  • How will we know when it’s accomplished?

Accountability requires answers to all three. Make asking them a habit.

*See Governance and Accountability: A Different Choice for Nonprofits, by Tracey Coule in Nonprofit Quarterly.

For more about engaging your board and community, follow me at The Detwiler Group, or contact me directly at sdetwiler@detwiler.com.

 

 

 

I’m a new board president! Now what?

I’m a new board president! Now what?

Congratulations! Being elected Board President is a vote of confidence.  Your friends may commiserate, but they don’t realize that you have superpowers.

With you at the helm, you make it possible to build the future your board and staff have envisioned.

It will take time, of course.

  • You will partner with your CEO in executing that vision.
  • You will mentor board members as they develop their roles and accomplish them.
  • You will be cheerleading.
  • You will be checking in with the ‘wisdom in the room.

You will make it possible for each member of your board to be part of that future.

In short, this organization is now one of the top four priorities in your life, along with your family, your job and possibly your house of worship.

Before your first board meeting as President, take some time to prepare.

What do you know about the people around the table? What do they know about each other? What do they know about you?

What do you want your working relationship to be, with the CEO? With the board?

How do you want to work together?

Google recently discovered that when individuals in groups get to know each other as people, those groups are more productive.  So consider, what does it make possible when each board member feels a real part of the group? What can you do to create that camaraderie?

The mechanics of being board president may be clear: preside at meetings; sign contracts; represent the organization in community meetings.

But developing a board that builds a future together – that’s your superpower.

Why are we doing this?

Why are we doing this?

Last night I dined with the interim dean of a college. As we talked about the role of an interim, she pointed out that one of the most important questions an interim can ask – actually ANY new executive – is “Why?”  “Why?” asked with genuine curiosity. Not “why the heck would you ever do this?” but just, “why are things done this way?”

Customs, traditions and ways of doing things build up over time until the original rationale is lost. The person who first instituted a procedure is no longer there. Circumstances, personnel, resources and society have changed, but the process has become so habitual that it’s just normal procedure.

The new CEO of Target, Brian Cornell, used this powerful question to completely remake the chain of stores over the two years he has been at the helm. At a time when so many department stores are having a hard time, Target is flourishing.

He did it by asking questions. With the advantage of being new, he was able to look into every aspect of the stores and ask questions to get at root causes. Going beyond finding those causes, though, he continued asking questions.

Looking at ourselves with fresh eyes isn’t always easy, but what if we put ourselves in the place of that interim or new executive, looked around, and asked, “why?”

If “why” sounds accusatory, there are other ways to ask:

  • Tell me about this process. How did it start?
  • What prompted us to start doing that?
  • What are we trying to accomplish by doing this?
  • How does doing this help our mission?

Note that US and WE and OUR, not YOU or YOUR, makes it about all of us and the organization, not a single individual.

Real curiosity is the key. Discovery — without first thinking you have a better way to do it.

For board members, this means listening to the newest members; encouraging them to be curious. And not being defensive when they ask. Join together in the discovery.

It’s the first step in letting go of what made you great, so you can envision new ways of creating change in your community.

Just like the real estate agent helps you see what you’ve overlooked for years, fresh eyes can help us see the procedures that have solidified into place until they are invisible to us. Only then can you change them.

Follow me at The Detwiler Group for more about nonprofit governance, education and strategic planning, or reach me at sdetwiler@detwiler.com.