Board Chairs: What the Really Good Ones Do

I have interacted with numerous boards and board chairs across the country. They are any under-studied species. What do they think and do? A recent study, “Voices of Board Chairs” by the Alliance for Nonprofit Management, is one of the few studies that sheds some light. There is much in their report that merits attention. But I took from it a couple of things I will highlight in this post and my following post. For this post, let’s focus on the role of the chair in relationship to the board itself.

The study indicates that most chairs view their most important contribution to the board in two areas: 1) keeping the board focused on strategic direction and 2) facilitating the board’s meaningful engagement in the agenda before it. These are such seminal responsibilities. Without chairs doing this, we have boards dependent on the CEO for strategic focus and for keeping board members meaningfully engaged in the agenda before them. Both are extremely dangerous.

I have witnessed the powerful contribution that a good board chair makes as she/he leans into…

  1. Owning the agenda for the board’s work with the CEO
  2. Ensuring that the board is devoting adequate time to about the right matters
  3. Planning with the CEO various methods of presentation and interaction in the boardroom to ensure that all board members are invited into the process
  4. Watching to make sure that all board members believe their personal contribution is heard and valued
  5. Modeling for the board good self-awareness and attention to ongoing improvement of performance

What does good board chair engagement in the boardroom look like to you?

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Still Bogged Down

In my last post, I wrote about what seems to be the political “bog” we are in as a nation. It appears polarization continues unabated. We seem indeed bogged down. It’s nowhere more obvious in the war of hyperbole about healthcare reform. The new congress and administration feel compelled to sound as if all dimensions of the Affordable Care Act are catastrophic – though clearly that’s not the case. They want to return to many of the pre-Obama care realities. From all major studies done over the last 20 years, it has been clear that the U.S. health system was broken before the Affordable Care Act. It has been well established that among developed countries we have some of the highest healthcare costs but not the best healthcare outcomes. On the other hand, the Democrats insist that all of the ideas being advanced by the Republicans will result in a catastrophe and make America sick again. Clearly both perspectives are exaggerated for political purposes. Nonprofit boards in the social services and healthcare sector are trying to navigate in the context of this bog. This era requires that boards and executives together breathe deeply, suspend assumptions, pause before reacting, and reflect on deeper convictions. We need more sense-making in our nonprofit board rooms. This is particularly important as we consider strategies that often represent some tension or even conflict between values or principles deeply held.

How are you as a board taking time to pause, reflect and make sense of the challenging opportunities you face and often the implicit tension between values represented in the options you face?

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Bog or blog post: What’s really important?

When I began this post, I mistyped the first word as “bog” not “blog.” It’s not the first time. I blogged previously that when a board gets into mucky ground, it often leads to fertile generative discussions.

I was planning this time to offer a reflection on our nonprofit sector, post the 2016 Presidential election here in the United States. I began again then stopped and let the word “bog” stand. Why “bog”? Are we not at a place where and when we need to rethink and recalibrate what we need to be about in our faith-affiliated nonprofit arena? If we don’t do some soul-searching, I am afraid we will become even more bogged down!

In the early 19th century, Alexis DeToqueville observed that much important work was being advanced in the United States by the voluntary sector. The voluntary sector, most notably the church, was doing many good things—serving many in need. What we have witnessed over the last 50 years is a dramatic shift, with the state and federal government assuming more responsibility to do the “good” and the church refocusing or even decreasing its engagement. Further, in the last 20 years, we have seen the rise of the private business sector contracting with the government or just directly operating at a profit work previously carried on by the faith community.

I lean toward compassion and love in my theology and hopefully practice. I wonder as we move into this era with new President Trump, if we don’t need to think deeply again about the core convictions that inspired communities of faith to reach out to serve those in need. That impulse was not one of hunkering down to protect and defend power and privilege but to serve others in need. The communities of faith and our many health and human service ministries need to unapologetically continue to serve with vigor.

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Culture does matter

In my last post, I began to probe the challenge of finding wisdom in the boardroom. Wisdom is a cultural marker. It’s been observed that culture trumps strategy or said another way, culture eats strategy for lunch. You get the point. I offered two ways to think about increasing wisdom in the board room. There are many. But I suggested two: increasing diversity of perspective and new ways of actually engaging agenda. One deals with who’s in the room. The other deals with how agenda matters are focused and handled.

Diversity for diversity’s sake is wasted energy. However, diversity on the board for the sake of enriching perspective, broadening frames of reference, and shaping more informed and wiser decisions is important. There are many ways to cut this diversity matter – -along age, gender, ethnic, religious worldview, socio-economic lines. Yes, many ways. The challenge is what kind of diversity and breadth of perspectives best informs the decision-making in your boardroom. But there are limits.

E pluribus unum is Latin and appears on our U.S. currency. It means “out of many, one”. But is it possible that too many, too great a diversity, mitigates against creating the one? I recently read a piece by a Catholic organizational ethicist who suggested that diversity and solidarity (common good) are not antithetical. But it does beg the question of whether there are limits to the breadth of diversity that can be sustained in a boardroom.

I would assert that we need nonprofit boards in which two dynamics are held in constant tension—attention and commitment to core mission and values with broad and increasingly rich diversity of age, ethnic, professional, and personality perspectives. For way too long, and I mean way too long, the nonprofit sector has been governed by relatively wealthy white folks. That must change!



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Finding our Way to Wisdom

I have been thinking a lot about the fundamental role of nonprofit governing boards. We teachers or consultants on governance, opine about the board’s stewardship and fiduciary responsibilities. We offer advice on how to engage in more strategic work. We provide tips on how to engage more “generatively” in the boardroom. All this stuff is important.

But the deeper vocation of trustees is to seek wisdom. It is a wisdom that listens to internal and external stakeholders. It is a wisdom that reflects deeply on mission and core values. It is wisdom that puts aside opinion and focuses on the greater good. It is a wisdom that is courageous enough to insist that the driven CEO pauses and is audacious enough to stir the more reticent executive to take reasoned risk. It is a wisdom that is ready to engage new possibilities as well as make very difficult decisions.

Finding such wisdom will require boards that are rich in perspective – that is diverse in many ways. It will also require a readiness to experiment and use time/engage agendas in new ways. How are you working on creating breadth of perspective in the boardroom? What experiments have you tried in engaging agendas in different ways?

Expect more in the next few posts on perspectives and process in the boardroom.



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“Generative” board work is a term introduced in the book, Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards (2005). It’s a great contribution to the literature and thinking about nonprofit board work. Chait, Ryan, and Taylor (the authors) observed that far too many boards spend far too much time doing fiduciary work—I call it rear-view mirror work—listening to reports and reviewing past performance. They assert that boards need to do more “strategic” work—front windshield work—and more “generative” work. So far so good, but that word “generative” has tripped up a lot of well-intentioned folks.

I often think about generative work as learning work or sense-making work. It’s not work that focuses on past performance or decision-making about future goals, but it is conversation that explores issues, deepens knowledge before decisions are needed, and imagines new possibilities that extend mission in ways that are consistent with corporate values.

Our national board is at the front-end of a season of learning and fresh thinking about future possibilities. I suggested to our board chair that perhaps we should envision our August and November 2016 board meetings as occasions to create some curiosity in the board room. At our recent August meeting we created a 50-year time line using blue painter’s tape stretched over three 6-foot tables with table tent cards to mark the decades. The board and staff gathered around the tables. We began to plot the major environmental/contextual dynamics that were in play over those decades and how we as an organization (an association of religiously-affiliated nonprofits) responded in this context of changing needs and regulatory developments. We then began to talk together about what we could learn from this 50 year look back and what it might begin to mean for our mission, services, and forms over the next decade. We will continue this exploration in our November meeting.

When we are curious, we ask questions. We wonder about things. We look for connections and causation. We wonder why or why not? We suspend for a moment assumptions and easy answers and explore possible meanings. I am not sure where this will take us. But I am a little curious!

There are many ways to do more generative work in our boardrooms. I recommend to you Cathy Trower’s book, The Practioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership: Building High-Performing Nonprofit Boards (2013), which offers many.

How are you doing generative work in your boardroom?

I would be glad to interact further with anyone about really building board capacity.

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Audacity or Atrophy

A friend and peer executive recently spoke on her experience as a CEO with several organizations. She observed that effectively adapting to our environment requires audacity. Her observation was that if boards and CEOs can’t or don’t act boldly, they run the risk of atrophy. Atrophy is slow-death. What does such audacity look like?

For each organization it will look a little different. I’ve seen it. Sometimes it’s when a board and CEO finally talk, really talk, about a real challenge or dilemma an organization is facing. Often it’s one the CEO is even a little reluctant to address. But it sits like the unnamed elephant in the room. Audacity engages the conversation. Sometimes, audacity moves an organization to expand its mission and begin to serve those never served before. Sometimes, audacity is expressed in the difficult decision to completely eliminate a service line and discontinue serving folks formerly served. Audacity may mean putting at risk some human and or financial capital for which there is no guaranteed return.

If you’re not facing into some challenge that is stretching you toward audacity…be attentive. You may be in the early stages of atrophy. What challenges are you facing into?

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