Posts Tagged ‘Cathy Trower’

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

See also:

The Board Game

The Ultimate Board Member’s Guide

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Controversial fundraiser: A lesson in board recruitment?

A Texas-based hunting group called the Dallas Safari Club is announcing a fundraiser to “save the black rhino” by auctioning a hunting permit to kill a black rhino, according to yesterday’s article in the International Business Times. Ben Carter, the Club’s director, insists the permit will raise $500,000 in support of conservation of this endangered species in Namibia.

If this controversial story gave you pause like it did for me, we can only imagine what board questions might have surrounded this fundraising discussion. Does the end justify the means? What message are we sending our members? Can we afford harmful press if we’re raising hard-to-raise funds for an obscure species? Even these plausible questions sound ridiculous when looking from the outside in.

What kind of decision-makers do you have?

Reflections on this (perhaps fictional) board meeting reminded me of an interview question I asked of our recently featured governance expert and author, Cathy Trower. I prompted Trower about board composition, which elicited a very helpful answer about the importance of considering the group dynamics you have when recruiting board members as well as factoring in upcoming projects where you may need devil’s advocates, consensus-builders, divergent thinkers and more.

How might the board’s decision-making process for the Dallas Safari Club have changed if the nominating committee recruited members based on Trower’s recommendations below? How would a devil’s advocate have changed the course of this fundraising idea? How would discussing the club’s goals and future work affect the decision? How might some of the most important decisions made about your organization’s future improve if your board adopted Trower’s criteria?

CausePlanet: Cathy, will you explain why effective board composition involves more than professional expertise?

Trower: First, if we only consider professional expertise when selecting board members, we could overlook the quality of thinking that someone might add, regardless of his/her profession. And, we may inadvertently signal that the expertise a person brings (e.g., financial, legal, real estate) is what is wanted from him/her for his/her board service–almost inviting the person into that operational domain.

By saying this, however, I don’t want to imply that nonprofit board members do not and should not bring that expertise to bear pro bono, just not be limited in that direction or see it as their personal charge (which can add angst to the professional staff’s jobs working as liaisons to various committees or feeling second-guessed). Board members have to keep in mind that when it comes to the nonprofit they serve, they are the part-time amateurs overseeing the work of the full-time professionals.

Consider your group dynamic. What kind of team players do you need?

Second, nonprofits should consider the group dynamic when selecting new board members, as I discuss in chapter four. Will this person add to the team we have assembled in a positive way? Is the person a team player? What is the mix, for example, of consensus-builders and devil’s advocates, divergent and convergent thinkers, idealists and pragmatists on the board?

What kind of board work is on deck?

Third, it is wise to also think about the work ahead of the board in the next several years when we consider potential board members. For example, are we entering into an era of increased regulation? Is new product and program development going to be critical? Are technology and delivery systems changing for us? The better we understand what lies ahead, the better we will do selecting people with experiences most appropriate for our boards.

Author interview with governance expert Cathy Trower:

Give your board new direction and results by learning more about Trower’s Practitioner’s Guide on three proven spheres of leadership – register for our live interview with Cathy Trower on December 12.

See also:

The Board Game

The Ultimate Board Member’s Guide

The Nonprofit Leadership Team

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Board assessments: trash or treasure?

A family of treasure hunters from Sanford, Florida spent 13 years scouring the Florida coastline and finally discovered gold from a 300-year-old Spanish shipwreck worth $350,000. While most of the proceeds went to the state and the company that owns diving rights to the site, the parents say the greatest treasure was spending time with their son and daughter during the treasure hunt.

Board assessments are a lot like treasure hunts. Bear with me. I know one sounds like pulling teeth while the other sounds like fun in the sun. Successful discoveries in the ocean or on land are the result of working together as a team and using every tool you have. And much like treasure seekers, when board members engage in evaluation, know they’ll find incredible value if they’re willing to put in the time and enlist good resources. Unfortunately, most boards don’t have their eyes on the prize. Instead their eyes are on “checking the box” and moving on.

We’re featuring a game-changing book in our summary library about governance by Cathy Trower. When I asked her how The Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership genuinely adds to the body of resources we have on the topic, she answered with this:

Trower: In this book—a practice-based field guide if you will–readers come to better understand the theories that underlie the Governance as Leadership (GaL) model (e.g., critical thinking, individual behaviors and group dynamics, cognitive errors, teambuilding, leadership) but more importantly, they hear from actual board chairs and CEOs about what happened to them while putting the ideas into action. Readers learn how to get started, gain traction and actually sustain a new norm for board performance.

More to point of this blog, I also asked Trower to weigh in on board assessments:

CausePlanet: In chapter seven, you assert that board self-assessments alone do little to affect board performance. What advice do you have for boards that are guilty of using only this tool?

Trower: There are several important issues embedded in this question. First, a primary reason I assert board self-assessments do little to affect board performance is because too many boards see them as a “check-the-box” experience. Oh, yes, we did a self-assessment; we do one every year (or every other year). Yet, no one can really recall where the findings went or what happened as a result. Self-assessments can only drive higher performance if the board takes the time to discuss the findings as well as what needs to improve and describes a path to do so. Then, it re-evaluates and conducts another discussion, all moving toward continuous improvement.

Second, as your question asserts, this is only one tool; so even if used effectively where there is reflection and learning, a self-assessment can become stale and routine. Board members complete the form without real thought. Thus, boards are well-served to consider other forms of assessment, such as having an outsider observe board meetings and report on what he/she saw or assigning an “on-the-balcony” board member who not only is engaged in the board conversation at meetings but also reports after the meeting about what he/she observed (in terms of group dynamics and dialogue).

Third, it is important to have the staff members who regularly interact with the board assess the board’s performance (anonymously), not just board members. Staff members sometimes see the board’s effectiveness quite differently.

Fourth, some boards are utilizing 360 reviews where each member rates all others and him/herself against observable behaviors. This ups the ante for individual performance. The main point is that great governance requires self-awareness about performance as individuals and as a collective. Self-awareness increases with measurement, discussion, and learning about areas of strength and weakness, and board performance increases when there is deliberate attention paid to how to improve and concrete action to do so.

See also:

The Board Game

The Ultimate Board Member’s Book

The Nonprofit Leadership Team: Building the Board-Executive Director Parntership

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Reward wisdom and work, not just wealth

“Why do nonprofit organizations go to such great lengths to recruit the best and brightest as trustees, but then permit them to languish collectively in an environment more intellectually inert than alive, with board members more disengaged than engrossed?”

Chait, Ryan and Taylor’s question raises the important conundrum nonprofit leaders must reconcile if their organizations are to flourish. The coauthors’ question also prompted them to write Governance as Leadership, which introduced a groundbreaking trimodal approach to board governance in fiduciary, strategic and generative spheres.

The subject of our currently featured book, The Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership, is Cathy Trower’s how-to edition, which expands upon Governance as Leadership’s influential work with a wealth of examples of high-performing nonprofit boards as well as insightful tools and guidance on how to successfully operate equally in these three celebrated modes. I asked Cathy Trower to discuss the three modes of governance in our author interview:

CausePlanet: In the book, you discuss the importance of boards utilizing three modes of governance. Will you briefly explain why this model is so effective?

Trower: It is effective because it taps the full brainpower and talent of everyone assembled in the boardroom, rather than just that of the usual, most outspoken members. It’s no secret that thinking, and ultimately decision making, are improved through the airing and understanding of divergent thinking, multiple views and diverse perspectives; respectful challenges to the status quo; and devil’s advocacy and dissent. The model, if well-practiced, allows for all of that. It drives the board up the knowledge management hierarchy from data to information to knowledge to wisdom. It gets the board away from technical problems (which can and should be addressed by management) to adaptive challenges, which are messier because they get to core issues of values and missions. It helps the board remember it is responsible with management for the long-term sustainability of the nonprofit it holds in the public trust while also being responsible for the oversight of the more mundane, though nonetheless essential aspects of the organization (e.g., legal, financial, ethical–duty of care responsibilities). It levels the boardroom playing field that in some nonprofits has been tilted toward the wealthy and powerful having the most say and sway to ensuring the best thinking emerges no matter whose. In the nonprofit board vernacular, the model rewards wisdom and work, not just wealth.

The coauthors’ three Governance as Leadership modes, which Trower discusses in her Practitioner’s Guide, have been repeatedly applied and widely accepted by nonprofits throughout the sector. Nonprofit leaders who recognize they stand or fall based on their enlightened board leadership should leverage Trower’s book as an instructive resource that illustrates an innovative approach with specificity and experience.

See also:

The Board Game

Exposing the Elephants

The Ultimate Board Member’s Book


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