Sunday, March 31, 2013

Positioning Your Board for Strategic Leadership - Part 3

In the previous post, I described a number of barriers that prevent boards from exercising strategic leadership. Let's look at five strategies that can help your board overcome these and other barriers.

Strategies for Becoming a Visionary Board 

Strategy 1—Focus on the ultimate ends of the organization 
Taking our inspiration from John Carver, author of Boards That Make a Difference, boards must concentrate on the ultimate ends of the nonprofits they govern and avoid any tendency to micro-manage. Stated another way, they should focus on the mission, vision and overarching strategic priorities contained in the strategic plan. Recognizing that strategic leadership is a shared responsibility, they should leave the means—the daily management of the organization—to the executive director. This approach will help boards structure their meeting time to address more pressing governance matters. Key practices to consider:
·         Design board meeting agendas to focus attention on governance priorities and avoid micro-management. This includes the use of consent agendas to minimize time on routine matters of  board business and to maximize the time spent in strategic deliberation that are directly related to governance.
·         Utilize an organizational dashboard to monitor the organization’s performance on key success factors that are linked to the nonprofit's strategic plan. By paying close attention to these indicators, boards are more likely to maintain a focus on priority areas of governance.
·         Align the board’s committee structure with its strategic thinking and decision-making responsibilities. Core committees such as governance, finance, and fund development, as well as all other board committees, workgroups and task forces should reflect current strategic priorities requiring the board's focused attention in the coming year—attention that will move the vision forward.
·         Conduct an annual assessment of the board's capacity for visionary leadership. Such an assessment would include an examination of how well the board is maintaining its focus on the mission, vision and current strategic priorities.
Strategy 2—Build a board leadership talent pipeline for the future
In contrast to the typical short-term recruitment process that focuses narrowly on filling anticipated board vacancies for the current year only, boards need a long-range plan for developing future leadership. Such a plan centers on the following questions: Who will be serving on and leading the board over the next five years? What is our plan to scout board leadership talent for the future? How will we go about fostering and developing this future board leadership? What we're talking about is board leadership succession planning. Key elements to this approach: 
·         Create a standing governance committee to replace the traditional nominations and recruitment committee. The governance committee will use the key questions listed above to devise an ongoing process that includes prospecting, recruiting, selecting, orienting, training and assessing the performance of board members.
·         Develop a written board member job description that reflects the future needs and expectations of the board with an emphasis on strategic leadership.
·         Link board development to your strategic plan. Identify the new skills, knowledge, personal contacts and other attributes future board members will need to possess in order for the board to do its part in advancing the strategic plan. Based on this analysis, develop targeted board recruitment and leadership development priorities.
·         Develop a just-in-time board orientation program to speed up the learning curve for new board members so that they can hit the ground running in their first meeting. The idea is to cover this ground earlier with prospective board members – to move orientation further upstream. Again, it is important to link this advance program of orientation to the strategic plan.
·         Beyond this initial orientation, foster a continuous learning environment for all board members.

Strategy 3—Develop a shared vision of future intended impact
The key question for nonprofit boards is: "If we could have the impact we have always desired in advancing our mission, what would this success look like in five years?” The board's answer to this question captures the organization's strategic vision. 

Strategic vision reflects the institutional and community impact we intend to create and the kind of organization we will need to be in order to achieve this impact. “Vision of Intended Impact” has also been defined as a clear, measureable statement of what the organization will hold itself accountable for and align activities around. 

As mentioned earlier, it is critical that the board be involved in the development of a shared vision—the centerpiece of the strategic plan. Once your board has developed a vision statement, look for ways to live the vision in your organization and the community. For example: 
·         Use the strategic vision as a framework for board decision making in every meeting—not just during an annual planning retreat.
·         Share your vision with the community. Once you go public with it, it's hard not to live up to the vision.
·         Ask board members what they think is most exciting and inspiring to them about your nonprofit's vision. . Remember: It was their passion for mission and vision that led them to join the board in the first place! Tap this energy to increase board performance and accountability.
·         Use the vision as the basis for regular dialogue in meetings on emerging issues and challenges.
·         Seek media coverage when strategic plan milestones are reached, and use this as an opportunity to promote your vision both inside and outside of the organization.

Strategy 4—Keep up with the rapid pace of change
Another strategy for nurturing visionary leadership is to help the board keep up with the rapid pace of change. Provide information that helps the board think about these key questions: What external changes and trends will have the greatest impact over the next three to five years on the organization and the people it serves? How can the organization effectively respond to these changes and trends? How are other organizations responding to these changes and trends? 

Let's remember, however, that busy people will have difficulty finding time to read a lot of material. So, if you intend to share information with the board, whether in print or online, make sure that it is timely, relevant and well-summarized. Here are some suggestions for helping board members stay abreast: 
·         Schedule time during the regular board meetings for discussion about the impact of key external changes and trends, as well as emerging critical issues.
·         Encourage individual board members to read, listen and look for information about emerging trends and share that information with the rest of the board.
·         Periodically send board members short readable articles summarizing relevant future trends.
·         Involve the board in ongoing strategic thinking and planning as a way to expose it to new external trend data. 
Strategy 5—Stay in touch with the changing needs of your customers and other stakeholders
The fifth strategy consists of providing members with information that educates them about  the changing needs of your customers and stakeholders. Help them understand trends associated with all of the groups central to your success—clients, donors, volunteers, lawmakers, vendors, and community members. Key questions include: What do our stakeholders think of the organization? What are their most important future needs and service expectations of the organization? For the new needs and service expectations most likely to emerge among stakeholders, are there other organizations well-positioned to meet these needs? Are there opportunities to collaborate with those organizations? Consider the following activities: 
·         Create opportunities for board members to "meet the customer." One organization schedules an annual town hall forum to provide board members with a face-to-face opportunity to listen to constituents talk about their emerging needs.
·         Tap staff experience and knowledge of clients, partners, donors and funders to deepen the board's understanding of emerging stakeholder needs.
·         Establish a strategic marketing information system to supply the board with data to enhance its governing role. Access to such data helps to assure that the voice of the customer is reflected in major board decisions while avoiding any temptation to micro-manage. In most instances, such a marketing information system can draw from a variety of data gathering activities that are already in place and which support ongoing staff efforts in program development and grant writing; for example, focus groups, secondary market research, surveys, key informant/expert interviews, community forums, internal reviews, online literature searches, and more. Develop summaries that employ communication techniques such as infographics—visual representations of sometimes complex information, relationships or knowledge that make data more accessible and usable by the board. An example: Using a recent report on African American philanthropy with key trends summarized in a series of such infographics, board and staff leadership of one nonprofit are reassessing their current fund development strategies for this important donor demographic.

Next Steps
To summarize, an effective board of directors that can exercise visionary leadership is built upon a number of key strategies. These processes, structures and practices reinforce each other and lay the groundwork for board and organizational effectiveness in this time of continuing rapid, profound change. Here’s how to use them to transform your nonprofit board:
1.    Characteristics. Review the eight attributes of visionary board leadership. Use these factors as a checklist to assess your board. Identify areas that need improvement. Consider use of the Visionary Board Leadership Assessment which can be found on our website at
2.    Barriers. Scrutinize the eight barriers to visionary board leadership. Some will be familiar. All can be overcome. Begin work now to remove these barriers. 
3.    Strategies. Remember, an effective, visionary board is built on five key strategies that lay the groundwork for board and overall nonprofit effectiveness in this time of rapid, profound change.

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