High-impact boards: Trower answers your questions

Last week, we hosted a lively interview with Cathy Trower about The Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership. Her essential how-to edition for boards and nonprofit CEOs generated so many questions from our webinar attendees that Trower answered what we couldn’t get to during the hour here in this article.

As many of you know, Trower’s book expands upon Governance as Leadership’s influential work with a wealth of examples from high-performing nonprofit boards as well as insightful guidance on how to successfully operate in three celebrated modes: fiduciary, strategic and generative.

Trower kindly addressed these nine additional questions below from our webinar attendees:

1. Could you explain “flow” and how you can reach “flow” on your board?

In Csikszentmihalyi’s terms, the idea is to get the board into “flow”–the mental state in which each person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing with a feeling of energized focus, full involvement and success in the process of the activity. This means utilizing the skills of board members on challenging tasks. It is where high skills and high challenge meet, so you have to appoint board members with the right skill set AND give them substantive (challenging) issues to tackle.

2. How do you suggest fostering teamwork on a board?

  • Have the board name great teams they know (e.g., sports, emergency room, flight deck, SWAT/military). Ask what they all have in common. They will say common purpose, trust, goals, role clarity, etc.
  • Discuss purpose–Why are we here (as a board)?
  • Set clear, compelling and consequential goals for the board and committees.
  • Help members see how they add value.
  • Discuss team performance and what that would look like in the boardroom.
  • Don’t allow individuals to subvert the collective performance.

3. I’m a new CEO of a small nonprofit. I want the board to be challenged and give more wisdom than it has previously. The members are so used to budgets and reports, though, that every time I bring up a larger issue, they clam up. What can I do?

Talk to them about why they “clam up” because you have to get to the root cause. Is it because they lack knowledge and don’t want to appear stupid? Is it because they lack passion for organizational issues? Are they not really experts on the issues you face? Is it because it feels strange and they’re just not used to it? Have they had bad experiences in the past where people stepped up and got smacked down (before you got there)? Unless you can get to they “why” you won’t be able to change the behavior.

4. How do board members feel about Governance as Leadership? Do they embrace the challenge or feel threatened?

As with anything new, responses are mixed. One thing is for sure: If the leaders (e.g., CEO, chair) are ambivalent/skeptical, the board senses it and gets skittish. But every board member wants to be engaged; they want to know it matters that they show up at meetings. Everyone’s time is precious! They want their intellectual capital tapped. I always ask when getting started and after they have read chapter one of the book about the GaL model, “What resonates with you?” “What doesn’t?” “What has you concerned or perplexed?” And after they’ve done some tri-modal thinking/practice, ask them: “How did that go?” “What were the benefits of thinking in three modes?” “What were the challenges?” “Why?”

5. I’ve served on many boards and have stopped serving because I feel like they are a waste of my time. The staff could figure out the budgets and operations better than I could, and all the board meetings were just opportunities for the CEO to report progress. I have some experience, though, and wonder how I could better vet a board where I could actually contribute. What do you suggest?

Prior to agreeing to serve, ask the leadership some questions: “What are the 2-3 most important issues/decisions the board worked on/made during the past year?” “What are the 2-3 most important issues that will come before the board in the year ahead?” “What are the biggest challenges the organization faces?” How do you plan to utilize the board?” “What do you see as the skills I bring to these issues/to the board table?”

6. What should a leader focus on when trying to change a culture to one that supports the Governance as Leadership principles?

This is really complicated so there is no simple answer, but I will say this: First, a leader must understand the culture that exists. Importantly, a culture is comprised of artifacts (the things you can see and the policies in place), espoused values (what everyone says they value) and underlying assumptions (the stuff people are sometimes not really aware of but that actually drives behavior). The key is to get to the underlying assumptions–-how people really think.

7. A board I’m working on cannot come to consensus on anything. We have such divergent viewpoints that we can’t get anything done. How could Governance as Leadership help us?

GaL is very much about deciding what to focus on and how various stakeholders see the issues and then deciding what makes sense for the organization. Divergent views are actually healthy. But you may be bringing issues to the board that are already too far downstream in the thinking process and people are disagreeing about tactics. Try to get issues to the board early (upstream in the thinking and framing stages) and then discuss them together. Discuss who thinks what and why and then figure out how to get on one page.

8. What kind of leader do you need to implement Governance as Leadership?

One who is comfortable with ambiguity. One who is confident without being egotistical-–who actually wants a board that pushes his/her thinking. One who is not afraid to say, “What did I miss? How else might I look at this? What do you think?”

9. We have instituted a mandatory dollar amount that board members must “give or get” and it has driven away some longstanding board members. Is this good so that new members can come in and reach these goals or bad since we are losing some continuity?

It’s neither good nor bad on its face; there’s much more to it I would imagine. But if longstanding board members aren’t giving or getting, perhaps it is time for them to go. All board members should be told before joining a board what the giving expectations are. In your case, since this is a new policy, I think it’s fair to tell longstanding members they need to also step up and if they can’t or won’t, they will have to step down. That seems reasonable to me. In your situation, I guess I’d worry less about continuity than reaching what sounds like necessary fundraising goals. All board members should bring time, treasure, and talent or work, wealth, and wisdom–-not too much to ask or expect.

Trower’s explanation of how to practice working in three modes we mentioned above was particularly helpful and I encourage you to listen to the archive once we have it posted on the Interview page. You can also read more interview answers about The Practitioner’s Guide in our Page to Practice™ summary or purchase Trower’s book at www.josseybass.com

See also:

The Board Game

The Ultimate Board Member’s Guide

One response to “High-impact boards: Trower answers your questions”

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