Organizations evolve. Budget growth, staff leadership transition and changing community needs may spark that evolution. As part of organizational change, boards of directors must adapt along with the organization. Many boards begin their life cycles with a more involved, working style. At some point, just as a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, boards need to grow into their true (and most effective) governance role.
There are plenty of ways to describe the work of boards of directors and the transitions in board leadership style: working, managing, governance. One author, Lawrence M. Miller, described organizational life cycle transitions in his book, Barbarians to Bureaucrats: Corporate Life Cycle Strategies (Ballantine Books, 1990). “Barbarian” organizations are those early in their development. Miller describes their management style as “high control, direct action; no delegation.” As organizations progress to becoming “bureaucrats,” he notes a new style that is “impersonal, likes reports … overly organized.” My guess is that very few boards would view themselves sitting around a table with draped clothing, weapons and raw meat, but the governance style they practice can feel primitive to the executive director. Transitions can be dramatic in nature, such as the abrupt departure of an executive director. On the other hand, some changes in board style are part of a natural progression for an organization as it moves through various stages of growth. Whatever the situational trigger, transitioning gracefully between board leadership styles takes work and communication, but it is key to nonprofit success.
Board leadership styles
There are many styles of board leadership, ranging from a more free-flowing, emergency- response agenda to the highly structured Policy Governance model created by John Carver, author of Boards That Make a Difference: A New Design for Leadership in Nonprofit and Public Organizations (Jossey-Bass, 2006). Carver developed the Policy Governance model for board work that separates organizational purpose (ends) from all other organizational issues (means). The board sets the ends, and the staff handles the means.
For most organizations, as they evolve through leadership styles, there will be a happy medium between these extremes that can produce the best results for an organization’s mission. Tapping the CPA on your board to help redevelop internal accounting structures isn’t all bad—just as long as she doesn’t do the accounting entry and balancing. Asking a board’s program committee to brainstorm new audiences for program outreach can yield positive results—as long as members don’t interfere with staff work. At the end of the day, no matter which model boards engage, the central role distinction between board (set overall mission, vision, guiding policies) and staff (execute daily work to meet mission and goals) must be respected.
As a board moves from a working to governance model, a clear distinction between “working” and “engaged” should be recognized. There is a fine line between a board that works to the detriment of the staff and mission and one that is engaged, knowledgeable and committed to the organization. The challenges for staff of running a quality organization may make it seem like extra work to keep directors informed. However, if boards are to do the work expected of them, information about programs, trends in the field, changes in funding streams or emerging needs is vital to future planning and policy formulation. As with so many stumbling blocks in organizational excellence, good communication, both in substance and style, is vital to success.
Plan for mistakes
Transitioning with grace requires time and patience. Rarely do board leadership styles transition overnight. Building in time to evolve to a different governing process makes the change easier to incorporate and allows time for feedback to adjust the system as it progresses. Mistakes will be made. Changes will be felt by both board and staff. The ball will be dropped. But allowances for these actions to happen, and then to learn from them, is part of an effective process.
One organization moving into a higher level governance model made a conscious decision to change board agenda topics to better reflect higher-level decisions and discussions. Gone were the lengthy committee reports and detailed program updates. Added were a quarterly report on performance measures that showed progress toward strategic goals and budget analysis. Also included were high-level policy discussions on advocacy, future trends affecting their mission and strategic alliances. It took time for all board members to understand the new system and, from time to time, the old style of conversation crept into meetings and board members reverted back to detailed, day-to-day analysis of the organization. However, as the effectiveness of the organization increased, the new model gained momentum.
Another organization was not so lucky. As the organization grew and changed, the board resisted high-governance level thinking or changing its model. Board members requested information on the most basic procedures, required all organizational decisions to be ratified by the board and created plans six months ahead of time. As a consequence, the executive position suffered a lot of turnover, and the organization had trouble meeting basic goals. Clients suffered and funding decreased.
Remember to have fun
In an informal survey of highly effective boards conducted in 2007 by Metro Volunteers, a resource for volunteerism and training in Denver, one of the most important factors in board success was the ability to have fun and connect personally with other board members. When evaluating a new governing model, make sure it has space for fun and involvement for each board member. This work should be fun. It should feed the part of each of us that is committed to making the world a better place. At its best, the transition won’t feel so much like a “change” but an “enhancement” of this important work.
by Cindy Willard, program officer for the Helen K. and Arthur E. Johnson Foundation, a Colorado-based family foundation.