Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Dialogue of the Board

I ALWAYS GET A LITTLE SHIVER UP MY SPINE when a I see a board meeting agenda that is nothing more than a pro forma list of reports.  I bet you know what I mean -- after the call to order and the approval of the previous month's minutes we're off and running with a litany of updates from the president, the director, and any number of committees.  You can kind of put yourself on auto-pilot for most of these meetings.  In fact, one (at least) organization I know hands out the same agenda for every meeting.  It doesn't even take into account that a committee or two haven't met -- your committee is on there even if all you have to say is "we haven't met."  (And, yes, that shows up in the minutes!)  Please tell me what would excite you about attending that meeting if the agenda was all you had to go on?
The fact is a board is a community -- a community of doers and seekers.  In order for this community to do it must seek meaning not only from facts, but from the contexts surrounding those facts.  In order to do that, there must be space for dialogue.
It is very easy to talk through and around a meeting agenda that's filled with reports.  Talking through and around the many issues that make up at a typical business meeting doesn't necessarily constitute dialogue. To extract meaning from  information and  ideas, and to reflect on the implications of an organization's work requires a deeper level of conversation and a bit of time to reflect and connect the dots.  Very hard to do in a business meeting, I grant you.
However, it is only through dialogue that the community of the board can consider its organization's relevance, can encourage innovation and can expose ideas to competition.  It is with dialogue that individual board members can ponder their personal obligation to their organizations.  It is through dialogue that strong boards are built and sustained. 
How do you introduce dialogue into your board's work?  Here are some ideas:
  • for 20 minutes at every other board meeting, split up into smaller conversation groups -- everyone discuss the same topic or question, then regroup for a 10-minute dialogue as a community
  • ask a committee to prepare a 10-minute presentation about why their work matters to the larger work of the board, then spend 10 minutes asking the rest of the board to expand on that meaning (connect the dots, as it were)
  • ask a staff member or volunteer to talk with the board about why their work advances the organization's mission -- see how many dots you connect in another 10-15 minutes of dialogue
  • ask an audience member, a client, or representative from another community organization to dialogue with your board about why what you do is important to them -- dialogue around that for 15 minutes
  • set aside longer blocks of time for in-depth discussion -- perhaps as a special board meeting or a retreat
Please share your ideas -- we'd love to hear your thoughts. 

Photo:  Share 5 from Idea Maps

Monday, January 3, 2011

Time to Get to Work

NEVER MIND THAT IT'S THE FIRST MONDAY OF THE NEW YEAR and you're still struggling with those resolutions.  When you get to your desk this morning, will you really make any changes to how you approach your work?  The fact is that you don't have to make any big changes.  After all, big change is most often made up of the accumulation of lots of small changes, sideways glances and out-of-the blue inspirations.
Thanks to the good thinking of others, today I've got a manageable handful of small, sideways and out-of-the blue for you:
The "Ten New Year's Resolutions for Boards" from Barry Bader's Great Boards Blog offers advice that you can put into action almost immediately.  How's this:  make a list of the board members who are your board's future chairpersons and figure out ways to get them lined up for leadership (OK, that last part is my advice).  Barry's advice is if you can't identify anyone on your current board who's willing/able to become the board's leader, then you've got to put your heads together and develop it from within or recruit for it.  If you've one or two folks, what can you do right now to develop them further?  Should they be part of the executive committee (if they're not already)?  Should they be included in conversations with the current board president?  After you've made your list and answered these questions, call or email your nominating/board development committee chairperson and suggest a meeting.  Do this before the end of January.
Another great suggestion from Bader's list is to rethink what you give your board members as prep material before a board meeting.  Are they really getting material that will help them be better critical thinkers and decision-makers about the organization?  It seems like it's feast for famine for most boards -- either they're inundated with reports or they don't get anything (even an agenda).  If you're responsible for helping your board understand the organization's issues and their responsibilities, take a couple of hours this week to find out what your board members need and want for prep material (call a few of them for a quick convo).  Then make a plan to deliver on that before the next board meeting.
Over at Gail Perry's blog, Fired-Up Fundraising, you'll find her resolutions for board members.  As far as I'm concerned, her set of ten resolutions amounts to the basic job description for all modern board members.  Two of her ten are "get more engaged" with the work of the organization (actually easier done than thought) and "have a bias toward action".  Add a discussion around Perry's list to your next board meeting agenda.
Barry Hessenius gives us a baker's dozen of resolutions at Barry's Blog.  Among them are these:  the two watchwords for 2011 (and beyond) are Austerity and Authenticity; and put someone on your board who's under the age of 30 -- as Barry says, "Just do it already."  You might review your strategic plan with austerity and authenticity as the filters.  Would you make any changes to your plan because of them?  As for the under 30 board member, we'll you've already got your call into your nominating/board development chairperson.