Sunday, September 28, 2008

Can Nonprofit Boards be High-Performing Teams?

I first read Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith's book, The Wisdom of Teams, years ago when I was preparing to lead a team of museum educators through a five-institution collaboration. Ever since then, I've asked myself whether or not boards of directors can meet the standards the authors identified as critical to the high-performing team.

The Wisdom of Teams looks primarily at the for-profit workplace and how groups of workers combine in teams to get work done.  Teams function at a variety of levels -- or not at all -- from the innocuous working group, whose purpose is to share information, to the high-performing team, which can reach astounding feats of accomplishment.

Okay.  We know boards are groups that come together to get work done.  And some boards are highly effective and productive.  But since boards members are serving voluntarily, would they ever have enough skin in the game to be one of Katzenbach and Smith's high-performing teams? And do they need to be anyway?

The authors identified six "team basics" that define the discipline required for team performance.  They are:
  • the size of the team is small (generally less than 12 people).  Interestingly, the national trend for size of boards has drifted downward to around 14 people.  In fact, the poll that's currently running on this blog indicates the vast majority of boards are in the 11-20 person category.  And really, when you look at who on your board is really invested enough to participate, it usually is a small core group -- the real team
  • team members bring complementary skills to the table.  This is about diversity, not sameness.  
  • team members come together around a common purpose.  For the nonprofit board, that would be the organization's vision and mission.
  • they agree on a common set of specific performance goals.  For nonprofits, these goals would generally be articulated in the organization's strategic plan and related implementation plans. Job descriptions for board, staff and volunteers would also serve as performance benchmarks.
  • team members agree upon a working approach.  Make clear the board's structure, how leadership is shared, how conflicts are resolved.
  • teams hold one another mutually accountable for their performance.  The high-performing team takes this one step further:  team members are deeply committed to one another's personal growth and success, and this may just be a bar too high for the nonprofit board (as it is for most groups of people working together).
Nonetheless, Katzenbach and Smith argue that there's a tremendous untapped potential for team performance in most organizations.  "Hundreds of significant team performance challenges exist in every sizable organization, regardless of the prevailing institutional purpose, leadership philosophy, or governance approach.  Some...are obvious, but many remain hidden under a blanket of assumptions about working group approaches and individual accountability."

Friday, September 26, 2008

Shiny Object Syndrome. Do you have it?

If you search the Internet for the term "Shiny Object Syndrome" you'll learn that it refers to the penchant many people have for latching onto the latest tech toys and social networking media no matter the cost in dollars, time or productivity. Email and websites?  Old school.  How about Facebook, Flickr and Twitter?  What's next and how fast will it get here?  Applied to the world of cultural organizations, how well will shiny objects facilitate relationship-building among and between audiences?

When used in the broader context of attention diversion, Shiny Object Syndrome (SOS, for short) has been alive and well in the organizational environment for a very long time.  SOS can just as easily be about introducing costumed interpreters to increase visitation as it is about inaugurating a wild and whacky fundraising event to bolster the bottom line.  Funders, too, are all potential shiny objects.  In other words, shiny objects can take an organization to the next level or over the edge...or both, depending on your ability to get past their glitter.

Shiny objects do serve an important purpose:  they require an organization to have the conversation about what really matters.  Todd Defren at says it well: “Shiny Object Syndrome is marked by a headlong and heedless rush; but, lasting businesses are built when...plans are carefully plotted and sculpted - not thrown against the wall to see what sticks.”   How many times do you feel as though your board or staff leadership jumps from one idea to the next without benefit of a check-in with mission or strategic plan?  

We're probably all guilty of SOS from time to time.  Our goal as organizational stewards is to make sure we understand how this bright bauble will enhance or expand what we're meant to do.  So here's a quick list to employ for the next time you're dazzled (from Karyn Greenstreet's blog):

  • Is this right for our organization:  does it fit our mission and our current plans? 
  • Do our stakeholders customers want this, and are they willing to pay for it?
  • Do we have the time, resources, energy, and money to put into this to make it?
  • Do we have too many open projects that need to be finished before we begin something new?
  • Do we have the ability to finish this new project, and implement it, and maintain it?
  • What has to drop off our radar in order for us to start something new?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Values and Principles - An Organization's Bedrock

When you see these two words - values and principles - is your first inclination to say they are the same thing?  While they share a critical connection – in that you can’t have one without the other – there is an important difference between the two.  And, it might be quite important to know the difference when thinking about your organization.

When we talk about institutional values, we’re talking about strong and enduring beliefs based on assumptions or understandings about what is worthwhile or desirable.  For many nonprofit cultural institutions, values tend to focus on understandings such as respect, excellent, authenticity, community, education.

Here’s the values statement from the Ohio Historical Society:

  • Customer service and focus
  • Respect and opportunity for Society employees
  • Excellence
  • Action- and results-oriented
  • Authenticity
  • Teamwork and partnership

  • Continual learning and improvement

It’s unlikely that these values will change much, if at all, over time.  They are the touchstone, the bedrock, the wellspring for what our institutions stand for.  As one member of a discussion list I subscribe to wrote, “Sometimes we are very aware of values and sometimes they are so latent that we base our decision and work on them without consciously ‘knowing’ them or anticipating their impact on us and others.”

Principles are articulated tenets based on an organization’s values.  They become the operational roadmap by which we recognize and measure how we do things.  They permeate an organization’s work.  The Textile Museum of Canada (Toronto) weds values and principles in the following statement:


    * We are audience/visitor centred and provide an accessible, welcoming environment for visitors, volunteers, members and staff

    * We foster generosity of spirit

    * We believe in community and cultural diversity

    * We respect the contributions of individuals


    * We practice high museological standards as we preserve and promote textiles of world-wide significance.

    * We foster a culture of philanthropy

    * We value a healthy and sustainable organization


    * We are committed to life-long learning

    * We reach out to a broad sector of the population through our core programs


    * We nurture research and artistic creativity through a range of media and activities

    * We embrace a diversity of opinions

Like values, operating principles may be latent.  But don’t you think identifying and understanding your institution’s values and principles can be a powerful motivator to perform at a higher level?  And given this uncertain economic swirl we’re in, doesn’t it make sense to bring even greater focus to what your organization stands for and how you do your work?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Row, Row, Row That Boat!

An analogy I like to use -- and thus often make -- is one that likens board and staff leaders to the oarspeople of a rowboat.  Without a coordinated effort between the two, the boat spins in circles. When a board president and an executive director are unable to synchronize their work -- if not their vision -- all the maneuvering in the world will not get the institution from point A to point B without a huge expense of energy and time.

If you've been fortunate to have a positive relationship with your institutional counterpart, you know that the rowboat can not only make it from here to there, it can do so faster and far more efficiently. 

You might never have imagined you'd be responsible for an oar, or that the person you're paired with gained responsibility for an oar.  But here you are:  sitting together in the rowboat that is your institution, in the middle of the lake that is your community; your part of the nonprofit sector.  There are other people in the boat, too -- board members, staff, stakeholders -- and they're relying on the two of you to move that boat to a destination. 

So, what might be the lesson of the rowboat?  I suppose the main one has to do with synchronization, that is understanding each other's strengths and weaknesses enough to know when to step up or relax the pace, or step out of the way. And synchronization is best achieved when it flows from some level of mutual respect for what each can bring to the voyage.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Empty Chair

Since a governing board is first and foremost about group decision-making, frequent absences of board members undermine the basic tenet of what a board does.  Yet many boards turn a blind eye to the situation, often ignoring their own rules regarding attendance.

If board members have difficulty making meetings, then it seems to me that there must be easier ways to keep them engaged in the work of the organization without holding the board and senior staff hostage to their attendance.   Chronically absent board members make it difficult for boards to achieve the quorums they need to legally accomplish business, thus thwarting decision-making.

If that weren’t enough, the organization loses out on the benefit of their input at the times it might most be needed and, in turn, absent members lose out on the benefit of their peers’ points of view. 

Thoughtful work to bring cohesion to a board can be undermined by the frequently absent.  The morale of those board members who faithfully attend meetings needs to be taken into account, too.  It's not fair to them to continually give a pass to the non-attendees.  

Perhaps it would be better if frequent absentees move to an advisory council or stay active at the committee level, where there are more options for meetings.

In lieu of that, urging your physically absent board members to participate via telephone or video conference, or some combination telephone and the Web, for all or part of each board meeting is an increasingly accepted approach.  That way, they can participate in discussion and decision-making -- they're just not in the room with the rest of you.  (The NYS Not-for-Profit Corporation law allows boards to meet via telephone and video conference as long as everyone can hear everybody else.)

Trying to keep absent board members up to speed via post-meeting emails or phone calls is laborious for the board member or staff person who is assigned that task and it still doesn't get to the heart of the issue, which is that governing is a group activity.