Great governance - what are you waiting for?

As the old year fades into memory, the Third Sector as a whole realises that the issue of less than great governance is a price that no organisation should be prepared to pay.  In fact, as last year’s very public examples demonstrate, having less than optimum arrangements does organisations no good at all.  It can make them stagnant and internalised and can impede the important work they want and need to carry out on behalf of members, those they represent or those they exist to help.  More than a few organisations, or their controlling boards, suspect that things could be better but haven’t tackled the problem yet.  So what should they be doing right now?

The answer is to agree that this is the year they get it right.  In most cases, all that is required is a review and, potentially, a small refresh or adjustment.  Governance reviews should ideally happen every couple of years but sadly many organisations will admit to a dozen or so years having passed since the last one.  Granted, in some cases, something a little more root and branch will be the conclusion but it’s still no reason to put off starting to look at how things are going.

Unfortunately, results aren’t achieved by wishful thinking.  It takes a serious ‘stand-up-and-be-counted’ moment for a Chief Executive or a board member to insist that the work must start today.  It is so easy to put off in the general busy and worry of day-to-day business.  It is too easy to adopt Scarlett O’Hara’s attitude of ‘I’ll think about it tomorrow.  After all, tomorrow is another day’.  We had plenty of examples, both minor and horrendous, of the results of that attitude last year.  It is worth remembering that members of governing bodies must accept overall responsibility for proper administration of their organisation as well as having a responsibility to act  in the best interests of the organisation at all times.

Starting something that has the potential to create significant change can be very intimidating.  But you might find that it’s not really that bad at all. We also know that having only internal voices in the conversation can limit your thinking.  So just pick up the phone and talk to someone external and completely unbiased who will be able to help you make a start.  

"Susie’s knowledge, her perception and ability to translate into a new Corporate Governance environment which should stand for the next ten years, was exemplary. The Board and Management of FSDF will continue to seek Susie’s advice from time to time on specific issues, but believe that given the quality of work already completed, that will be on rare occasions.”                                                  - Chris Sturman FCILT, FRSA, Chief Executive, Food Storage & Distribution Federation

Are these your Board meetings?

George woke up early on the day of the Board meeting and realised with a sinking feeling that he still hadn’t found time to read all the board papers they had sent through from Head Office nearly three weeks ago.   Even though he had been retired for nearly a year, he seemed to be busier than ever and just had not found a minute to attack that huge pile of documents and background reading.  But he was sure that some of his fellow board members would have read them and he was confident that he could pick up the gist of the discussion.

Across town, Peter was looking forward to a good day as he prepared for the short journey to Head Office.  He was really looking forward to the Board meeting today because he was going to tell the Chief Executive exactly where he was going wrong and what he must do immediately to sort things out.  He had been discussing the issue with colleagues at work and knew that the organisation would be much better off doing things his way.  He was confident his fellow Board members would follow his lead.

Making an early start at his desk David, the Chief Executive, was miserable.  He had also woken up with a horrible sinking feeling in his stomach knowing that he had to face another interminable Board meeting which was likely to go on all day and produce very little that was helpful to him.   There would be endless, pointless discussions achieving nothing except frustration and high blood pressure.  He was acutely aware that the organisation was facing the worst crisis of its long history so could not understand why the Board members seemed to go out of their way to make matters worse, failing to either grasp the issues or refusing to make any constructive decisions.

Meanwhile, in a galaxy and another Boardroom far, far away, Chris - a Chief Executive with a difficult decision to make that day - was involved in a brisk discussion with his Board.  The discussion was aimed at getting through the various elements of today’s key issue and were informed, motivated and to the point.  He was looking forward to getting a decision on the issue by close of play.  He had planned the meeting with military precision, had previously arranged several detailed discussions with his Board Chair and Deputy Chair and was confident of their support.  They, in turn, had taken time to gather support offline from other Board members and all were happy that the decision they wanted to reach was the right move for the organisation, for the members and the staff.  They had agreed a detailed agenda and schedule for the meeting so all of the preparation was going to result in decisions and specific actions.  Excitement and innovation were the order of the day.

It all sounds like the beginning of a bad novel doesn’t it?  But George is not alone and David does not suffer in isolation either.  Chris is, perhaps, a rarer breed.  They represent opposing ends of the spectrum.   At one end are organisations whose board members are ‘on the board’ but not necessarily ‘in the work’ while organisations with fully functional, supporting Boards are at the other. 

Do you recognise any of these scenarios, have you had a moment of sympathy with any of these characters?   How many of you can identify with happy Chris, confident in his Board and the support it gives him both personally and to the organisation?

We have all met Peter over the years, haven’t we?  Peter drives his knowledge and experience steamroller with certainty, happy in his conviction that there are no other strong voices or – heaven forbid – structures and strategies in place to prevent his headlong rush to fill the void he perceives with his own world view.

These scenarios are, as they say, altered to protect the innocent and, hopefully, less and less organisations find their experience locked at the negative extreme but many do still struggle to find the balance which will allow them to deal with day to day business and to fulfil the expectations of all concerned.

Boards are valuable, the individuals who step up to occupy their seats are incredibly important resources for any organisation and we welcome them with gratitude.  However, even the best of them cannot function at full capacity if an organisation’s governance arrangements hamper or hinder or, at best, do not support their activities and their peaceful coexistence with the organisation’s management team.

In these challenging times organisations have an increasing need to continuously improve their working practices, to examine and re-examine how and why they do things.  ‘Working smarter’ is an ugly phrase but it does hold the ring of truth.  Organisations not only need to function optimally they must also be nimble and flexible at times, able to make decisions because they are confident in their internal knowledge and capability.  They also need to be honest enough to know when it is time to take stock and check whether they meet current good practice.

One area which will effectively pre-determine the outcome of any meeting is the health and functionality of the relationship between the Board and the Senior Management Team.  That relationship depends on absolute clarity about the roles and responsibilities for each individual involved, for both the management team and Board members. Is this all about assumptions or do you have defined statements to which members sign up on a regular basis?

Whatever the current relationship between your management team and your Board it could well be wise to remind yourself that any organisation can be improved.  Is it perhaps time to re-examine your governance structures and take an objective look at the skills composition of your board.  Does it offer you the support and decision making capability that makes Chris so fortunate? 

If not then fix it now.  We all have far too much work to do to stay hampered by arrangements which don’t support the requirement.  Don’t just stay in the game, dictate the rules.  Can you really afford not to?

(This article originally published by Susie Kay in AMI, 2011)

Can your Trustees read the Signs & Portents?

 While I was waiting for last night’s wonderful lunar eclipse to show us its spectacular ‘blood moon’, I was reading about the religious leaders prophesying that this event, the last in a tetrad of similar events, would be the herald of the endtime.  Cheerful stuff at 3am!  

By utilising a combination of documentary evidence, quotes and a sprinkling of rather odd beliefs, they are happy to predict the coming of all manner of horrors for us all.  But here’s the interesting bit – each predicts a timetable which supports their own particular theory and all would like to take credit for being the first to make the prediction of doom.  Nor do they seem to mind that not many others are buying into their forecasts.

So what has all this got to do with Trustee Boards and the non-profits? 

The comparison with some Boards with a history of under-performance seems rather marked. The ability to look at what is happening within their organisations is fairly skewed by either outmoded beliefs or lack of skills and, sadly, the example of good practice in other organisations is largely ignored because they've always done it this way and it must be right – right? Definitely not.

All organisations face a landscape of continuous change and must regularly look outside to ensure they can respond effectively to the coming needs of members or those who receive their services.  It’s when the blinkers go up that trouble can find a way in.  If outside advice is not sought or welcomed, however sensible or appropriate, then the drawbridge has been drawn up and you don’t need to be a visionary to imagine what’s coming next.

Avoiding the doomsday scenario is so simple.  Regular and searching reviews of all aspects of the work and structure of the Board and its relationship with the organisation it serves will provide future-proofing and security. No mysticism needed.

Why we all need support - especially CEOs

This month I’m returning to a subject that is as important as it gets for the ongoing welfare of non-profit organisations – how the leaders within this very varied sector are able to flourish as individuals while remaining in charge of the destiny of their organisations. 

It is almost impossible to pick up an article or book about successful leaders and entrepreneurs these days without finding a story or quote about how that individual derived enormous benefit from having a mentor at some stage of their career.  Mentoring has been going on for a very long time – famous relationships include Socrates and Plato, Aristotle and Alexander the Great, and more recently Freddie Laker and Richard Branson.  Indeed, government statistics show that 70% of small businesses whose leaders receive mentoring survive for five years or more, which is double the rate compared with non-mentored entrepreneurs and, in addition, they are 20% more likely to experience growth. 

We know that a CEO crisis line has just published data to say that it has received twice as many calls this year as last.  So, if it is true that the leaders within our sector are increasingly aware of the need to run their organisations as successful businesses while also being under incredible pressure from all sides, and if it’s also true that leaders of all kinds benefit from having a mentor, why do so very few Chief Executives, senior management or Board Chairs have mentors?

 

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'The Big Society: Challenges + opportunities for membership organisations' - event report

This blog entry appears as a guest blog for 'Library & Information Update', the CILIP journal. The other night I attended an event jointly offered by the RSA and NCVO, rather interestingly titled “The Big Society:  Challenges and opportunities for membership organisations”.  The speaker list was impressive: Matthew Taylor (Chief Executive of the RSA), Dame Fiona Reynolds (Director General of the National Trust) and  Sir Stuart Etherington (Chief Executive, NCVO).  The event was a sell-out and we are told there was actually a waiting list for seats.

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Professionalism at work in the holiday season

Just as I was settling down on the train yesterday for a nice relaxed ride home, I overheard the lady next to me say to her travelling companion ‘Did you know Christmas Day is three weeks tomorrow?’  Talk about panic stations!  Am I ready – I am not!  Have I done anything about anything – I have not!  This has all the makings of a Christmas Eve whirlwind  but I have pulled this particular rabbit out a hat before so I am not overly worried.  Not just yet anyway! Organisations, however, need to be just a little bit more prepared and, in difficult times, will hopefully have been a bit inventive this year on the thorny question of  WHAT  TO  DO ABOUT THE  CHRISTMAS  PARTY.  An interesting subset of that discussion will also have revolved around bonuses or rewards for a year of effort and, hopefully, successes.


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The volunteer's new clothes - with apologies to the emperor!

For those of us who work in the not-for-profit sector, either as salaried employees or as committed volunteers, there was probably a moment when we made a choice – nfp or commercial – and the potential reasons for those choices are too many and various to list. For volunteers the years of involvement with a particular organisation or charity will pass quite quickly.  In the first instance it is interesting and exciting and it feels privileged to be on the ‘inside’, with your voice being heard and, hopefully, your opinions being valued.

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Applause, choices and cautionary tales

In earlier blog posts I have talked about the choices that organisations must make at the moment, examining their current structures to provide the best possible support to members.  Current discussions about how professional associations and membership organisations can survive in the current climate mean that there has been a slow realisation of the danger presented by several key factors.  The impact of current economic realities on members’ wallets;  the impact of new social media providing alternate communication routes which can bypass formal organisations; the negative impact of very public failures of professional standards; changing demographics; all of these are leaving some organisations exposed to falling membership numbers.


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Fairer access - Time to bite the bullet

Congratulations to Alan Milburn on opening up a laudable cross-sectoral discussion about what our childrens’ futures could be.His newly published report (Unleashing Aspiration - The Final Report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions) provides some important statistics about current and historical routes into the professions and offers a large number of conclusions and recommendations.

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Standards not noise

In the last few years the advent of an assortment social media applications has meant that many professional associations have been quick to see the possibilities offered by these new communication and networking routes and have begun to utilise as many as possible. They offer obvious benefits and opportunities to access large numbers of people, elicit opinions or motivate through almost instant communication of ideas. Yet it is worth questioning how many of these organisations will have taken the time to identify the strategic intent or benefit of these activities, both for the organisation and for the membership as a whole.

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