Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Positioning Your Board for Strategic Leadership - Part 2

There are a number of barriers that prevent boards from exercising the kind of visionary leadership I described in a previous post. Examining these barriers to visionary board leadership can be the first step in revitalizing an existing board or building a powerful board from scratch. Let's look at some of them now:  

·         Lack of time - In order to play a visionary leadership role, board members need the time to do the work of the board: attend meetings, serve on committees, read materials and maintain contact with each other in between meetings. This puts pressure on the board to do everything it can to organize for maximum effectiveness and avoid wasting time on trivial matters. This also challenges the board to recruit leaders who are able and willing to make the required time commitment. 
·         Avoidance of risk-taking - To be innovative and creative in its decision making, a nonprofit board must be willing to take chances, to try new things, to take risks. This risk-taking flies in the face of the conventional wisdom about board stewardship responsibilities. Success in new programmatic ventures is never guaranteed. Boards need to acknowledge this tension point and discuss it with funders, donors and other key supporters. Board leaders must strike a balance between taking risks and remaining true to their traditional stewardship role. It will also help to remember that holding on to the status quo can be a greater risk than trying something new.
·         Lack of board involvement in strategic thinking, planning and decision making - More than any other activity, strategic planning offers boards an opportunity to closely examine the changes and trends that will have the greatest impact on their nonprofits and their ability to make a real difference in the lives of the people and communities they serve. Based on this analysis, boards are then able to devise strategies to effectively respond to new challenges. This opportunity to reflect together on the big issues facing the organization leads to new vision and a sense of future direction, as well as the energy to move forward. Some boards are not involved in strategic planning at all. Some are involved but only superficially. When this happens, the board loses an important opportunity to hone and exercise its visionary leadership skills. And we’re not just talking about the formal structured planning process but rather all of the opportunities the board has to engage in strategic thinking and decision making on an ongoing basis.
·         Lack of knowledge in an increasingly complex world - The world is much more complex today for nonprofits. Busy board members frequently lack a deep understanding of critical changes, trends and developments that challenge fundamental assumptions about how they define the work of the board and what success looks like. Today, we see this shift most dramatically in the fields of health, education and economic development. Often, this lack of knowledge results in a lack of confidence on the part of the board to act decisively and authoritatively. 
·         Micro-management - There is the story about the city council of a major American city spending almost an entire meeting deciding what color to paint the seats in the new stadium. Think of the seemingly intractable problems facing this and other cities today-unemployment, low student achievement, crumbling infrastructure. A time for bold, decisive action, if there ever was one!. Where was the leadership? 

Practically all of us have hair-raising stories about boards that spent untold hours discussing trivial subjects while neglecting major governance issues deserving more thoughtful deliberation. It is essential that boards focus attention on the roles they are called to play in order to maximize mission impact. This means the board must avoid the temptation to micro-manage or meddle in areas that are more appropriately handled by staff or its own committees. The average board, meeting monthly for one- and- a- half hours, has approximately eighteen18 hours of meeting time per year to make all of the major governance decisions and still find the time to address new critical issues that are sure to emerge. It is simply impossible to do an effective job within those eighteen18 hours of meeting time if precious minutes are devoted to non-governance matters. In addition, a habit of board micro-management can adversely affect the morale of staff and the board's own committees as well. 
·         Holding on to the old ways - In their book The Accelerating Organization, authors Arun Maira and Peter Scott-Morgan state that one principle of survival scientists have observed in natural systems is the continuous shedding of operating rules that cease to be relevant because of changing environmental conditions. Organizations, they surmise, "can hold only a small number of rules and operations at any time so they must have the ability to shed old rules to make room for the new. Shedding becomes more complicated in systems involving human beings because their sense of self- worth is often attached to many old rules." This all-too-human tendency to hold on to what we know can prevent boards from considering and pursuing new opportunities that conflict with some of the old rules. 
·         Failure to see strategic thinking as the board's primary governance responsibility - Sometimes boards assume that it's the job of the executive director to do the visionary thinking. While boards rightly expect executive directors to be visionary, strategic and decisive, this doesn't mean that the board sits and waits for direction and inspiration. This lack of clarity can result in boards that don't exercise visionary leadership because they don't think it's their job. But it is! In fact, it's at the very heart of what it means to govern.
·         We didn't have to be visionary in a less-competitive past - Time was when clients, members, donors and consumers would just walk in the door on their own—or so it seemed. Viewing things in this way, boards didn't consider marketplace pressures, or for that matter the existence of a competitive marketplace. Those days are gone forever. For many boards, however, their leadership style hasn't kept pace with these new realities.

Some of these barriers will be familiar. All can be overcome. What is really required is a fundamental reorganization of board structure and process in order to position the board for strategic leadership. In a future post, we'll look at five strategies that can help your board adopt a visionary leadership style.