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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."


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