From Better Boards

Think your board chair succession is secure? Think again.

New icon roundMy colleagues and I are still digesting the lessons to be learned from the Voices of Board Chairs research. (I served on the research team, a subgroup of the Governance Affinity Group of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management.)

One area our research team wanted to learn more about was board chair succession.

Very interestingly, what we heard from these chairs was:

  • Fewer than half of our chairs had previously held the role of vice chair, a position commonly accepted in our sector as the primary precursor to the board chair.

“The board chair and vice chairs just quit one day and I was left.”

“.. I was a member of the Executive Committee when the Vice Chair, who was to take over as Chair in three months, had to resign from the board for a significant family health situation.”

  • 16% of our chairs had been on the board of their nonprofit for less than a year, and just over half for three years or less.  

“I had been on the board for 9 months. Because of my profession, and also my dedication to the group, I was a natural choice to become chair… but it was really early…”

“…all the members of the Board of Trustees, with one exception, indicated they were resigning. I was not on the board, I was a volunteer.”

” the board chair … needed to vacate the position for family reasons, and since I was vice-president of another nonprofit, I was asked to step in.”

My take-a-away from this:

Even well-crafted chair succession plans hit unexpected bumps in the road, such as health issues, new family or work responsibilities, or job relocations.

That left me thinking a lot about building a deep bench of potential leaders.

  • What would your board do differently if right from the start it considered every director a potential leader?
  • What would you do differently to nurture a big bench of future leaders rather than just one or two?
  • What do you do now? How is it working for you?

For more insights, I hope you’ll visit the Laramie Board Learning Project. Research colleague Debra Beck has been sharing her insights on the research through the lens of how board members learn.

New Study on Board Chairs Preparation and Roles

I’m excited to announce that the Alliance for Nonprofit Management study on board chairs is now published. You can find the study here.

Other research tells us that boards have come to count on their chairs for ensuring their good functioning. We wanted to follow that up by asking chairs how they prepared for their position and how they understood their roles.

The 635 chairs in the study told us:

  • 51% did nothing specific to prepare for this particular chair role
  • Many haven’t been on their boards very long
  • In hindsight, they say they would have benefited from mentoring, etc
  • Yet most report they are focusing on the top priority areas for their boards and have a good relationship with their CEOs.

I’ll have more to share on the results later this week.

Best, Gayle

P.S. Did I mention that I was part of the research team?

Board chair announcement

Effective teams – from Google to your board

After two years of study of over 100 teams, Google discovered the secret sauce of its most highly effective teams.
White water raftingFirst they looked to see if it mattered who was on the team. But “no matter how researchers arranged the data,  it was almost impossible to find … any evidence that the composition of a team made any difference.”*

What did matter: Group Norms. But what norms, what behaviors in the group?

The NUMBER ONE factor: a culture of “psychological safety… characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.” (NYT)
Psychological safety included empathy for their teammates and “conversational turn-taking”, where team members spoke up in roughly the same proportion.

The other items on the list:

  • Dependable members
  • Clear roles, plans, goals
  • Knowing that the work was meaningful
  • Doing work that had an impact
Does that also sound like the perfect board to you? It sure does to us, as building that team is the foundation of our work with boards.
You can read the full story at:
The Five Keys to a Successful Google Team
What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team

Governance is Governance

Ken DaytonI was cleaning old files a few days ago when I stumbled across the beloved “Governance is Governance” by Kenneth N. Dayton.

If you are too young to know this monograph, it’s the text of a keynote address to a professional forum hosted by Independent Sector’s Effective Leadership and Management Program given in May 1985 and published in 1987.

I was delighted to find it and read it again. As someone who works with many nonprofit boards and executive directors, the simplicity and clarity of the advice continues to ring true.

Here’s Dayton’s Function of the Board of Directors:
“As representatives of the public, be the primary force pressing the institution to the realization of its opportunities for service and the fulfillment of its obligations to all its constituents.”

And his Function of the President and CEO (that is, chief staff officer/executive director)

“1. Serve as the Chief Executive Officer of the institution, reporting to the board of directors, accepting responsibility for the success or failure of the enterprise. (emphasis added)

“2. With the Chair of the Board, enable the Board of Trustees to fulfill its governance function, and facilitate the optimum interaction between management and the Board.

“3. Give direction to the formulation [of] and leadership to the achievement of the institution’s philosophy, mission, and strategy, and to its annual objectives and goals.”


You can find the full monograph online at the url below.

Reading and discussing this would make for the great start of a board retreat.



Your nonprofit has problems? Watch Mozart in the Jungle

Jon and I just finished binge watching the first two seasons of Mozart in the Jungle on Amazon. violin-1085606_640

The cast includes Bernadette Peters, Malcolm McDowell and Gael Garcia Bernal who just won a Golden Globe for best TV actor in a comedy or musical.

It’s rare that any TV show brings us into the wacky and soul-fulfilling world in which we spend our days and many nights. This charming romantic comedy touches so many themes many of us have confronted.

Spoiler Alert — sharing some content

What’s not to love:

  • Crazy charismatic but unpredictable new artistic director
  • New artistic director succeeds long time and beloved director
  • Board infighting
  • An Interim Managing Director who is also the Board Chair
  • Fundraising, fundraising, fundraising challenges
  • Nurturing wealthy donors
  • Traditional classical arts program grappling with cultural changes
  • Staff-management relations (and relationships! not advised)
  • Vision/mission/ values conflicts
  • And many more

You’ve heard me preach that you need to create transforming emotional experiences for your donors and your board members. Without getting into the details, the fundraising scene in Episode 4, Season 1 is priceless.

It’s worth dissecting that one scene with your fundraising staff and board volunteers. For what works, and what doesn’t.

While I’m not recommending that your nonprofit conduct itself as the NY Symphony does in this show, I think you’ll find yourself relating to some of the challenges they face.

Are you already a fan? Why?

If not, let me know what you think.

P.S. My musical friends tell me not to get all crazy about whether the musicians are playing their instruments correctly. And for those who abstain from watching  shows with some nudity and drug use, not for you.

Wear your allegiance on your name tag

I’m on the board of WaterFire Providence.

At our meeting last week, I got a good chuckle out of the name tag fellow board member Peter Van Erp was wearing.

An architect, it wasn’t surprising that Peter designed his own custom tag.

Knowing him as I do, I guessed immediately Peter’s board commitments — WaterFire Providence and Habitat for Humanity of Greater Providence are on the ends. Can you guess the organization in the middle?

I can’t begin to count how many name tags I end up disposing of and feeling terribly guilty about. I try to give them back when the organization wants them. I even own one of those long permanent pin-on name tags from a peace trip I went on to the Soviet Union back in 1981 — I think I know where it is but I always forget to bring it with me.

I thought Peter’s name tag was a commendable example of efficient reuse.

He said I could share it with you.

Do you think maybe I’ve been in this business too long… getting excited or irritable about name tags? This is my second post. My first Preparing name tags – a facilitator’s lament was about how crazy I get when the name on the name tag is so tiny it’s basically invisible.

Reminds me of the long conversation on a facilitator’s list serve a few years ago about what flip chart markers people used. It was one of the most engaged discussions I remember on that list.

Answer me – dammit!

How to infuriate your Executive Director

Point of collectionDon’t answer me!

Ignore my emails.

Don’t return my phone calls.

It seems there is a rash of this going on these days. In the last few weeks, this has been at the top of the frustration list among executive directors I’ve been working with.

What work gets stymied?

  • Can’t get a meeting date arranged.
  • Can’t get some input on an important decision.
  • Won’t confirm their pledge or the date they are sending it.

I hear the lament… ” I simply can’t get them to call me back.”

Doesn’t make you feel very important, does it.

How many phone calls and emails are enough to make you respond?

Having just spent hours trying to arrange three committee meetings myself, I so totally understand this frustration. And that was using a Doodle meeting set up helper. I even ended up texting.

I don’t have a strategy for this.  I do have an answer… stop dodging the question.

Of course, I understand that in some cases the Executive Director is hounding board members and they might be trying to avoid him or her.

But really, a better strategy would be to tell your executive director why you feel like he/she is hounding you. Then arrange a better way to communicate.

What do you think?


Stress test your strategic plan

I was moving to wrap up a strategic plan today with a client, when a board member asked this question:Lift weight

If we “stress test” this strategic plan – borrowing the idea from banking, how would recent decisions our organization made align with this plan?”

Stress testing is a simulation used to test how banks will fare against a series of scenarios. During our planning process, our committee explored future shifts. The suggestion of looking backward against recent decisions was well-received.

What followed was a robust and thoughtful Read more

Good reads on board learning

There is so much to learn on board governance that it can be overwhelming. That’s why I appreciate my colleagues across the globe who share their wisdom and help curate the vast amount of stuff flowing past us.

Today I’d like to celebrate Debra Beck, EdD and her always stimulating Laramie Board Learning Project blog. (Besides reading Debra’s writing, I’m also having the pleasure of collaborating long distance with Debra as part of a team conducting research on board chairs.)

In her blog, Debra explores board governance through the lens of adult learning. Her blog is an exploration of how boards and the people who work with them can apply adult learning theory to improving governance.

For too long, many organizations have sought to solve their board challenges by hosting another training session. I get those calls all the time… “please come tell my board what it should be doing.”

But as Debra reminds us, most adult learning doesn’t happen in a workshop. As she explains, the 70:20:10 rule for adult learning proposes that just 10% of adult learning happens in formal training sessions. Most adult learning — the 70% — comes from doing the work, with the final 20% from interactions with other people.

Why is this important? Our board members primarily learn to be board members through their on-the-job experiences, however good or bad that might have been.

If your organization is truly interested in changing its governance practices, it’s going to take much more than a workshop to make that change happen.  While the workshop can provide examples of how to do things differently, change will only come about by intentionally putting those new ideas into action over time.

To put those ideas into action, board members and executive leadership will need to embrace learning and reflection, be willing to change the way they have learned to be a board, and make choices about their leadership that reinforces the new way of being they have set as their goal.

I urge you to plunge into Debra’s writing. It will be worth the time spent.