Ask them ‘Why?’

A recurring theme in organisations I’ve been working with lately is how to deal with the challenges posed in keeping board members on track and on message.

Try this illuminating exercise.  Take a minute to mentally review all your current and previous board members.  Can you identify one particular characteristic that they might share, the one common denominator which brought them onto your board in the first place?  I’d be willing to bet that in the majority of cases it will be their passion for their profession, their cause or for your organisation in representing that one thing that is so important to them. 

So, they choose to become involved in the hope of doing some good or, perhaps, encouraging what they see as necessary changes.  Once they are embarked as working board members, the challenge for any organisation is to maintain that passion and to channel it for everyone’s benefit.

Unfortunately, the reasons they got involved in the first place can, over time, be heavily outweighed by the demands of the role if the extent of their responsibilities or the expected commitment becomes blurred in some way.  That blurring can take many forms but frequent examples include:

·         Lack of clarity in what precisely they are being asked to contribute

·         Lack of clarity in their precise role and responsibilities

·         No exact definition of how much time they are being asked to contribute

·         Lack of clarity in where authority for any and all decisions is held

·         Regularly asking board members to carry out operational tasks or roles because staff resource is too low.

These excessive or unclear demands on board member time and personal resource, coupled with fuzzy expectations, can leave them uneasy or unsure of what they should actually be doing.  This can, of course, lead to misconceptions and miscommunications and, at worst, a view that someone is interfering inappropriately.  Just to offer a word of caution – ‘negative passion’ can be expressed in destructive ways. If an individual feels stymied or frustrated then the results can be unpredictable but are often the exact opposite of what you really want to be happening.

So do you believe that your board still has balance or have things become skewed in some way?  It can be a very uneasy feeling if you believe that you are not getting the best out of your board.  So here is something simple for you to try, either next time your board meets or perhaps as an offsite exercise.

Ask them why they remain on the board and why they are still happy to offer their time and commitment.

This might also be a good time to remind them about their official role and responsibilities and ensure that they have sufficient training to deliver against expectations - from both your and their perspectives. 

These exercises can provide some interesting daylight moments. Finding someone who is involved for unexpected reasons could explain any difficult ‘politics’ that the board might be experiencing; or why a particular individual never turns up or doesn’t read board papers in advance of meetings. If this clarity doesn’t provide sufficient impetus for improvement then you might consider performance reviews – but that’s for another day.

Either way, you will have a great opportunity to express how extremely grateful you are for their continuing contribution.   A little appreciation goes a long way.

If you would like to discuss any of these ideas further or need assistance with implementation, then do contact me.  I’d love to help.

He said 'The new governance made a difference'

The benefits of great governance made it to the BBC breakfast show business slot yesterday.  What a change from the gloom of all the stories about boards malfunctioning or in meltdown!

In an interview about the turnaround in the fortunes and future well-being of the Co-operative Group their Chief Executive, Richard Pennycook, stated that they owed their achievements to their refreshed governance arrangements.  The excellent new board that had been put in place had been able to power their new strategy forward .

With its 170-year history, this very mature membership organisation was facing a very bleak future – or perhaps no future at all.  Then its new Chief Executive decided to fundamentally re-examine what the organisation was doing and how it was doing it.  Not an easy task and it didn’t happen without a fairly noisy soundtrack.  However, as a result, the governance structures and processes underwent a somewhat radical ‘refresh’.  The results have been more than impressive, taking the organisation out of decline and probably into a very positive future.

Obviously this is not the only membership organisation with a very long history but it is this very maturity which can pose the greatest challenges in how to meet member needs and try to exceed member expectations today.  Staleness and the effects of ‘but we always do it this way’  can be very difficult to counter.  It can take some bravery to face the fact that a review must be the way forward but the results, as we can see, can be outstanding.  Your members will certainly thank you.

If your organisation has reached that point then delaying the inevitable can be costly. So, if you need a place to start, just pick up the phone and talk to someone external and completely unbiased who will be able to help you make a start. Or you may like to try our  "Non-Profit Health Check Quick Quiz" before you call.  Either way, you will be making a great start.

"The GGF Group had grown rapidly and our governance and structure had not kept pace.  We approached Susie Kay from The Professionalism Group to assist us to move forward.  Susie’s knowledge and experience in the field of Trade Federations was invaluable.  Her pleasant and approachable manner meant the employees were at ease and spoke freely to her allowing her to reach her conclusions.  Her advice and guidance has been invaluable and it has allowed us to commence the process to make the necessary changes to our governance and operations to allow us to proceed.’   Nigel Rees, Group Chief Executive, Glass and Glazing Federation

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 non-profits must undertake regular reviews

In the wake of the fallout from the Kids Company shambles and other more recent implosions, there are two learning points for the non-profit sector which are worth highlighting. Although most organisations in the membership and associations space have trustees who are far more engaged and (in my experience) capable than those involved with KidsCo, this sad tale has highlighted two problems which our organisations can have in common with service charities - Founders syndrome and infrequent reviews of Board/strategy/procedures. 

Firstly, Kidsco demonstrated that most unfortunate circumstance where the passion and drive of the organisation’s founder becomes an insurmountable block to progress if they are unwilling to hand over the reins to those who know how to run the organisation with efficiency.  Effective strategic and succession planning by a capable board should sort this issue out in a diplomatic way.  Running membership organisations and professional associations is a specific skillset which is not reliant on having a background in the specific context within which the organisation works, i.e. you don’t need to be a qualified kid’s social worker to run an organisation which provides children’s services.  That knowledge is the additional layer which completes the skills package.

Secondly, any and all organisations benefit from regular reviews of their activities, either in part or in total.  For non-profits, the need for regular reviews of board strategy and the procedures linking the board to the staff, along with reviews of board members’ effectiveness, understanding and involvement will ensure that the organisation is functioning at maximum effectiveness.

If you have the least doubt that your trustees/Directors are not as up to date as they should be or are not functioning at full capacity on behalf of the organisation then now would be a very good time to consider running an objective review of how they work and how effective they really are. Some recent reviews I've facilitated have demonstrated that even seemingly small adjustments can have major benefits.  Others have shown that it was time for some more radical changes to be implemented.  The common factor was having a totally objective eye providing an overview of the status quo.

If the idea of having an outsider looking into your activities feels uncomfortable, it would perhaps be wise to consider what you might be forced to rectify later.  So make that call, you will not regret it. 

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 dreaded acronym - it can easily confuse

Have you ever had one of those days when just about everything you touched or came to your attention was bigger, more complicated, more difficult than it, at first, appeared? Someone asks an innocent question or an email arrives and your first answer needs qualifying in some way and then that answer triggers another train of thought and so it goes until you wish you hadn’t answered the phone or opened the email in the first place! At  the close of just such a day a while ago, it occurred to me that at the root of this type of problem we often find the issue of implied, implicit or assumed understanding.  If your understanding is not clear in the early stages of the conversation or transaction then you will labour under the misunderstanding for quite a while, usually until someone realises that you have been talking at cross-purposes.

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PAYING IT FORWARD OR GIVING SOMETHING BACK

"The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on. It is never of any use to oneself. "- Oscar Wilde

As the increasing longevity of the population means that the government continues to struggle with the question of where to peg the age at which we might all receive our bus passes, I recently attended the festivities surrounding the retirement of a long-serving colleague.  Listening to the stories relating her personal history to patterns and methods of working which have long ceased to be relevant in a modern environment, it occurred to me that, over time, her capacity to adapt had been severely tested but that, in amongst the other elements of her day to day tasks, she had found the time to train and assist those around her.

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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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