Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Take the Poll!

AS A FOLLOW-ON TO MY LAST POST about board self-assessment, take my latest poll -- which you'll find conveniently located to the right! Let's see where your organization stands on the self-assessment spectrum!

Encouraging Your Board to Engage in Self-Assessment

MUCH OF THE WORK I DO WITH BOARDS involves some level of assessment about organizational strengths and weaknesses and the structure of the board to address them. About three-quarters of these groups will eventually get around to voicing the fact that they don't do enough talking about these most basic, yet most critical, issues. In the hustle of organizational life, these boards and staff haven't yet realized that they can take some "time out" to review and reflect.

Self-assessment can be many things: it can focus on organizational strengths and weaknesses, it can focus on board effectiveness in broad ways or it can focus solely on how the board is working at one meeting. Macro or micro, a bit of self-assessment is, as the old advertising slogan declared, "the pause that refreshes."

So, how might you go about some self-assessment with your board if you've never done anything like it before? I think one of the easiest ways to get the conversation started is simply to devote time at a board meeting to make a list on a flip chart of organizational strengths and weaknesses. It's highly likely that you'll uncover a great deal of consensus about some basic issues that you might not have known existed. That alone can be a tremendous sense of accomplishment for a group!

Once you've gone around the table and encouraged everyone to add an item or two to the list, take some time to figure out what 1-3 weaknesses deserve some attention right away. It's likely the discussion will result in some immediate actionable steps.

Or you might simply want to pose a question to get folks talking about why they care about the organization and want to be a part of it. This won't get you much critical analysis about organizational effectiveness, but it will encourage board members to open up in ways they generally wouldn't otherwise. This type of conversation helps to build a sense of trust and teamwork that can lead to critical analysis.

Want to go a bit more in-depth? I think a survey tool is a good way to encourage deeper reflection. You'll find a number of self-assessment tools online ranging from one-page, check-the-box surveys designed to gauge the level of understanding or engagement of board members in the big chunks of their responsibilities, to longer, more nuanced surveys. All are fair game for adaptation.

One survey I'm working with right now attempts to gauge a board member's understanding and alignment around the following areas: mission, finance, compliance, board composition and function, and board-director interface. My client and I adapted it from a survey used by a similar cultural institution. This survey ends with the request to "Please finish this sentence using your own words: Serving on this board board has helped me to develop...." Concerns raised in this survey will be used to develop a board-staff retreat agenda.

Photo: formative e-assessment concept map from yish

Monday, September 28, 2009

Leadership and Your Personal Compass

DOES THIS SOUND LIKE YOU OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW? Director is hired to revitalize a long-in-the-tooth cultural organization with an aging audience/support base. New momentum must be created for stability today and growth tomorrow. How to move forward and bring most everybody along? That’s just one of the thousands of questions to be asked and answered on the long journey of breathing new life into an organization that has hit a very wide plateau or peaked too soon.

Almost every cultural organization struggles every day to find its path to the future. Yet, as directors, we may be only aware of it when the struggle becomes a crisis. What’s the skill set for keeping a finger on the pulse of an organization, anticipating its needs, and creating its future?

A New York Times article about Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb’s approach to leading a major cultural institution into the 21st century offers up some really useful insights. Yes, this is the GM whose recent production of Tosca was booed, but that comes with the territory of leading change. So, here’s the short list I gleaned about leadership from the article:

  • Set your personal cultural compass on what you believe to be important. You’ve got to have a conviction deep in your gut that art, history, music, dance – or whatever – is the most important thing.
  • Demonstrate that this most important thing is not locked in the past. Its relevance to audiences over time lies in the fact that it can be reinterpreted and juxtaposed...again and again.
  • Facilitate new perspectives from new artists and audiences. Recruit new voices. Collaborate with unexpected partners.
  • Bring programming to new venues. Move it out when you can; find ways to engage far-flung audiences in it when you can’t. (Take a look at the image above -- there's a big screen outside the Metropolitan Opera.)
  • Get out from behind your desk. Anywhere in the museum, theater, or concert hall is your office.
  • Know that the more you plan, the more flexible your organization will be.
  • Keep the faith.
Photo: opera al fresco from • Eliane •

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Developing Your Board Meeting Agenda

WHO IS THIS GUY AND WHY IS HE SHOWING UP IN MY BLOG? Well, tell me if this board meeting agenda line-up sounds familiar to you: call to order, reading of the minutes, reports of officers, reports of standing and ad hoc committees, director's report, unfinished or old business, new business, adjournment.

It's likely that this agenda (or something similar) is familiar to most of you in the US, because it comes from Robert's Rules of Order, Henry M. Robert's parliamentary playbook first published in 1876 as the Pocket Manual of Rules of Order for Deliberative Assemblies. I think you can tell by the General's picture that he was a no-nonsense kind of guy. Robert's Rules moves citizen leaders through the paces of decision-making with military precision.

Since most cultural nonprofits are a L-O-N-G way from the top-down rigidity of military convention (nor composed of hundreds of board members), Robert's Rules has been an uneasy fit. I think most organizations pick and choose pieces from Robert's Rules and leave the headier stuff of subsidiary, privileged and incidental motions, assignment of the floor, and disciplinary procedures to large, highly structured bodies (like Congress).

A case in point is the board meeting agenda. The agenda is the content roadmap for discussion and decision-making. As with any road map, there are several ways of getting from point A to point B. Thanks to Henry Robert, many boards resort to auto-pilot when it comes to agenda planning. As a result, meeting formats are relatively predictable and often lack opportunities for real engagement and consensus-building. There's a balance to be struck at every board meeting, I think, and that has to do with moving meaningful discussion forward where all are encouraged to participate to reach decision points that can be documented and verified.

Much has been written about how to breathe life into agendas and routine meetings. I'll point out a few of my favorite suggestions:
  • move the most important or urgent discussions to the top or middle of the agenda (wherever you know you'll have the most people in attendance)
  • ditch verbal reports that rehash past activity (send them out beforehand in written form)
  • cluster discussions under the goals of your strategic plan
  • always set aside time to tackle broad issue discussions, invite staff presentations, visit a part of the physical plant or engage in some self-assessment
This means you'll need to build each meeting's agenda almost from scratch -- and that's a healthy thing. It will require you to always ask questions about what the meeting needs to accomplish and to answer those questions with a refreshing mix of content presenters. As a result, you'll be seeking wider input in agenda creation -- and that's a really healthy thing.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Leading from the Edge

THIS POST IS FOR ALL OF YOU WHO DON'T carry the title of president, chairperson, CEO, director, department head or anything remotely related to our typical understanding of "leader". This post is about modeling and exerting leadership when you're not at the epicenter of organizational decision-making; when your voice is one of many -- part of the Greek chorus as it were.

The beauty of nonprofit life is the prospect of leadership coming from anywhere, even in the most hierarchical of organizations. It can come from taking on small assignments that make a positive impact on the work of others, from encouraging others to bring their best work everyday, or from offering alternative perspectives to well-worn discussions. The one thing that is required is participation.

So, let's say you're the new kid on a long-standing committee. Somebody tapped you for a reason -- if that wasn't made evident when you were recruited, ask the chairperson about his/her expectations for your participation. Offer thoughts about how those expectations and your skills/interests intersect. (Mismatched assignments could offer you "growth opportunities", but it's likely they won't be helpful to either the committee or to you.) Then take on a task right away to establish your relationship with the group.

Engage supervisors or board chair-people in helping you expand your skill sets and responsibilities.
Encourage them to create an environment where any staff member or volunteer can be a leader in their own right.

Share your skills with co-workers. Pay your gains forward when you can.

The best nonprofits have room for leaders at every level. It's not the title so much as it is the attitude and what you do with it.

Photo: This Way from nic_and_nath

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Why Boards Fail

HERE'S A GREAT POST FROM Ellis McGehee Carter's blog, CharityLawyer, noting the top ten reasons why boards fail. Among them: operating from outdated governing documents, lack of diversity, and micro-managing.

It's a post to be shared with your board for a healthy discussion at its next meeting. If any one of these are issues for your organization, you'll want to work together to discover meaningful ways to address them.

I'm adding CharityLawyer to my blog list. I hope you'll add it to yours.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

What Gets You to Plan?

I KNOW WHEN MY BRAIN IS ON OVERLOAD to the point that I can't focus on anything, that's the time I start list-making. I just dump the reeling brain onto a piece of paper and start to sort it out. In doing so, I start to focus -- first on making the list, but then on prioritizing and tasking. This exercise is often overwhelming, but it's also calming, because it brings me clarity and gives me a starting point I simply lacked when all of it was stuffed in my head, zooming around in there.

It's the same with many organizations. They come to planning after months or years of unfocused activity, often so overwhelming that they are unable to see the future for the forest of the now. "Energy depleting", "chasing our tails", "in seeming crisis-mode all the time" -- these are some of the ways board and staff leaders have described the long-term effects of life without a plan.

Other manifestations can include: difficulty in attracting solid board and staff leaders and really good board members, failure to successfully compete for funding, haphazard approaches to meeting standards and getting them to stick, declining attendance or public enthusiasm for your work, and diminished capacity to effectively communicate with donors/members and the public. Does any of this sound familiar?

Certainly, the really tough funding environment we find ourselves in has been an impetus for many organizations to get their acts together by planning. In fact, it's a great time to plan for the day when funding might be more readily available.

Planning does not imply that an organization must empire-build. A plan that focuses on strengthening foundational issues is just as important -- and often more needed and relevant -- as one that reaches for the stars, especially now. In fact, organizations that have been through empire-building stages often need to turn their attentions back to the basics (which can easily get lost in the glow of capital projects and new programmatic directions).

Here's your assignment: put your hands on your organization's most recent plan and read it. What's been accomplished? What hasn't? Is it still relevant or does it need to be made relevant?

Can't find your plan or just don't have one? Maybe it's time to dump your organizational brain onto paper.

Photo: making plans from guckstdu