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Board Leadership Takeaways

Effective Board Leadership: A Few Takeaways

While researching a recent blog post on the topic of “effective board leadership,” I came across an article called “Developing Leadership on Boards of Directors” by Barbara Miller and Jeanne Bergman from a 2008 edition of The Journal of Nonprofit Management.  While I don’t know the authors and wasn’t previously familiar with their work, I would encourage people to check it out and read it from start to finish.  That said, it is fairly extensive, and I thought it would be helpful for me to summarize some of my main takeaways from this thoughtful piece:

  • It clearly lays out an issue plaguing board management: that too little attention is paid to developing board members as leaders and on transforming the board from a group of knowledgeable individuals into a high-functioning team. As the authors write, “…there is little that addresses the development of leadership: how individuals who are volunteering their time transform themselves into an active, engaged, and knowledgeable team – one that can guide a nonprofit organization to anticipate and respond to the myriad challenges in the sector today.
  • The article also offers a compelling definition of the term “effective board leadership” to include a specific list of activities/focus-areas that board leaders should make their primary concerns, namely:
    • “Mobilize action to further the mission
    • Help the organization adapt to changing circumstances
    • Respond to crisis
    • Identify opportunities for change and growth, and / or
    • Create future leaders.

As I read this list, I could imagine using these five focus areas as touchstones to guide future board meeting agendas, board retreat conversations, and the work of the governance committee in developing the board into a high-performing team of leaders.

  •  The authors identify qualities that empirically and consistently present themselves among board leaders: “Good board leaders exhibit passion, commitment and vision, and they articulate these clearly.” Totally agreed.  The authors also provide the following tips to help ensure these qualities:
    • “Recruit individuals who are passionate about the mission.” Excellent advice, particularly for nonprofits where board members might not receive any financial compensation.
    • “Keep a board’s passion alive by finding ways to keep trustees closely connected with the organization’s work.”
  • The article introduces an important distinction that boards always “govern,” but only need to “lead” sometimes,” such as “during times of transition and crisis,” especially since “such periods are also when the absence of leadership is most visible and most devastating to an organization.” Absolutely true. It seems to me that when scandals occur at organizations where board members resign voluntarily (or are asked to do so), typically poor leadership (or lack of leadership) is cited as a contributing factor.
  • The authors also encourage board members to ask specific questions in key areas, including:
    1. Compliance: “…Board members need to ask management to demonstrate compliance with the laws and requirements governing nonprofit organizations…” – and review the answers regularly
    2. Strategy:Their focus is less on why we do things a certain way, and more on whether or not the organization is doing the right things,” ensuring the board has a strategic mindset in every meeting.
    3. Evaluation: “By raising the question of how the organization will measure success, and by systematically asking for benchmarks related to these measurements, the board leads by focusing staff attention on results instead of methods…” This also helps the board and staff look beyond basic “bean-counting” and focus more on mission impact.  The authors also point out that “Mark[ing] moments of change” can have a positive impact on board culture, lending additional weight to the importance of evaluation.
    4. Resources:…ask how the organization is allocating the resources it does have, and to ensure that this allocation is reflective of the organization’s priorities.” It’s a great exercise to have board members consider whether a stranger would instantly understand our organization’s values by looking at our annual budget.
    5. Board Structures and Systems: “The board has to lead by asking questions about its own ways of working to make sure that its operating and decision-making practices keep up with changing demands, shifting responsibilities, board size and composition.” And not become stagnant – don’t assume that last year’s answers are still sufficient to meet the organization’s current needs.
  • The article highlights the importance of board culture (good and bad), offering observations about all boards:
    1. Organizational cultures tend to be self-perpetuating. People who are uncomfortable with the board culture as it is will leave, and those who like the status quo will feel welcomed and supported.”
    2. Boards are social groups and each has its own distinctive culture. Boards that work well have incorporated governance and personal initiative into their organizational culture.”
    3. The board’s culture is also fluid and changes as the makeup of the group and the situations, conditions and issues shift. Clarity and openness (and, conversely, confusion and secretiveness) are features of organizational culture that can be inculcated.

As Peter Drucker was quoted to say, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  Even if a board does everything else right, they can still fail in their leadership role if they pay no attention to culture.  The article recommends building “high expectations into the [board] culture,” and to that end, have provided this handy “cheat sheet” of the hallmarks of a healthy board culture:

  1. Respect: “There is respect – among the current board for each other and for the executive director – that comes from acknowledging and honoring their mutual responsibilities for their work and for the organization.”
  2. Communication and Transparency: “Good communication was cited…as a key to their effectiveness. Board members are encouraged to ask hard questions and get honest and complete answers.
  3. The Ability to Learn from Conflict / Debate: “Civility without debate may mean that the board admits only other like-minded people or that only a select group are the real decision makers. Conversely, debate without civility often reflects individual agendas that are not motivated by concern for mission, and rarely leads to better decisions.”
  4. Trust and the Ability to Take Risks: “Risk and trust go together. Board members are willing to take greater risks if they trust each other and/or the individuals in leadership positions.”
  • And finally, a few additional tips for creating a culture that promotes leadership:
    • “Establish and clearly articulate norms for board engagement”
    • “Create opportunities for board members to get to know each other”
    • “The structure of the board can reinforce the organization’s values and culture”
    • “Charge committees with clear objectives that are tied to the strategic plan”
    • “Balance future orientation with an appreciation of the past.”

It’s often said that movies don’t do justice to the books on which they are based.  Likewise, reviews or summaries of written materials can never fully capture the full essence of the original work.  Nevertheless, I hope that this summary does justice to the article by Miller / Bergmann, provides a snippet of the value of their original work, and motivates a few to invest in reading the whole piece.

Todd Gibby

Todd Gibby is the Chief Executive Officer of BoardEffect, with a primary focus on supporting client organizations in achieving their governance goals. Todd joined BoardEffect in early 2014, after having previously served as the president of Hobsons’ higher education division. Todd became part of Hobsons in 2011 through the acquisition of Intelliworks, where he was CEO. Earlier, Todd held numerous executive leadership positions at Blackboard, playing an instrumental role in the company’s trajectory from a start-up software company to the global leader in digital education.

Todd sits on the board of directors for Compass of Greater Philadelphia and the Rassias Center at Dartmouth College. He also serves as the Network Officer for the Washington DC Chapter of Young Presidents Organization and advises several early-stage companies. He is a frequent public speaker, social media writer, and a contributor to Wharton Entrepreneurship blog.

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