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Effective Board Leadership

Effective Board Leadership is Like…

“Effective board leadership” is a hot topic. A Google search on the term yields about 2.87 million results, a few of which jump out as being quite informative. These range from the quick and useful “The 10 Habits of Highly Effective Boards” from AGB’s Trusteeship Magazine to the scholarly, comprehensive, and seemingly timeless “Developing Leadership on Boards of Directors” by Barbara Miller from a 2008 edition of The Journal of Nonprofit Management.

In spite of such sustained and extensive media coverage, “effective board leadership” remains an elusive and widely interpreted topic. It is with this in mind, that I’d like to start with a quick definition from Barbara Miller. In her study:

Leadership was operationally defined as board actions that have served to move organizations forward so that they can successfully meet these challenges:

-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.

With this solid definition as a jump-off point, I’ve compiled a few of my own board leadership analogies based on anecdotal observations inspired by some unlikely sources.  It strikes me that effective board leadership reminds me of…

NFL Quarterbacks

Many organizations make the mistake of thinking that teaching board members their basic roles and responsibilities will turn them into effective leaders.    Unfortunately, this is insufficient. While it’s important that board members understand their roles, comprehending one’s role and being able to perform it effectively are two very different things.  This is a bit like being an NFL quarterback.  I may appreciate the greatness of Tom Brady and Cam Newton, and can even articulate the skills / attributes that fuel their success. But, no matter how well I understand the responsibilities of an NFL quarterback, that won’t prepare me for a productive career on the gridiron.  So, how are successful quarterbacks made?  Through:

  • Years of practice
  • Mentorship / coaching
  • Studying film/results.
  • Working one’s way through the ranks.
  • Working tirelessly with teammates to develop trust and chemistry
  • Experience in high-stakes situations
  • Lots and lots of innate talent and knowledge.

Engendering effective board leadership among board members requires similar training and investment…just on a different field of play.

Making Bread

It is critically important for each board member to understand how her / his unique strengths and expertise can be best utilized towards the board’s central purpose.  Susan Howlett, author of Boards on Fire! Inspiring Leaders to Raise Money Joyfully, has a great analogy for this – a great loaf of bread is the product of many people – someone tilled the soil where the wheat was planted, someone else took that wheat and ground it into flour, and even more people mixed the dough, created the loaves, baked, packaged and sold the bread.  The same person who sowed the field didn’t have to be a great baker, but everyone’s efforts were required to make the bread delicious.  The same is true of boards – you can find roles for each member that play to each one’s strengths, and when effectively combined, the board as a body can exhibit exceptional leadership with outstanding results.

A Disappearing Act

Effective board leadership hinges on the board (as a body) having a clearly articulated and agreed upon sense of purpose.  What do the board members see as their unique and collective role in the organization?  How does it clearly support / supplement the staff (and NOT supplant or interfere with their work)?  An interesting way to drive toward this answer is to have the board do an exercise where they consider the following question:

“If the board were suddenly to disappear tomorrow, what would happen to the organization?”

It’s harder than it seems, and inevitably fosters impactful discussion.  Like any good disappearing act, this exercise also has a second component.  The follow-on exercise is to have the board discuss the more aspirational question:

“What do we WISH the answer to this question really was?”

This helps establish a future-state vision for the board to “re-appear” in a form that better supports effective board leadership.

More Needles, Less Haystacks

When the board has a clear focus for its own purpose, it can work more effectively as a team.  Such boards set clearer annual priorities, optimize meeting time, and closely measure progress.  Their focus can also lead to a better working relationship with staff members.  Specifically, purposeful boards request targeted, meaningful reports from the staff.  This helps staff narrow-in on providing the most relevant / timely information to the board, rather than massive tomes of reports simply for the sake of “sharing this with the board.”  We all have too much to read already!  In my mind, effective board leadership looks a lot like getting everyone focused on a few needles; and avoiding the haystacks altogether.

Coaching and Cheering

When the board’s purpose is clear, the CEO has more clarity on the best way to leverage the board’s time and talent, and intuitively know what falls outside the board’s area of concern. In this way, the CEO can serve as an effective coach, putting the board in a position to be most successful.  Likewise, the board is more apt to truly support the CEO.  In this way, they serve as the CEO’s cheering section, and not as an “unforgiving taskmaster” or “overseer” of the CEO.  The position of CEO or executive director can be a lonely one.  The board can demonstrate effective leadership by cheering the CEO and staff when progress is made.  This also makes the board a much more likely ally for the CEO when he / she needs a sounding board or trusted advisors to help frame weighty issues.

Effective board leadership is a topic that the BoardEffect staff is especially passionate about and we regularly write on the topic. For further reading on the topic check out our other posts like building an effective board of directors and how to be an effective board member.

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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