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.

Mirror, mirror on the wall

When we look in the mirror we see what we have always seen.  It’s familiar and comfortable and we accept it as normal.  Things seldom change radically, everything looks normal. To our eyes nothing changes, even though we may have aged and things may have become a bit slack round the jawline or gone south a bit.  And we have all probably experienced that ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall’ moment when we are a bit optimistic about what looks back at us because self-criticism is hard isn’t it!

So what does your organisation see when it looks in the mirror?  Do you ever look?  Why would you look?  What would tempt you to look closer?

Because that’s what a governance, strategic or procedural review or audit is designed to do.  It holds up a mirror for your organisation to look into and then reflect on what is happening.  The really clever bit here is that this mirror talks back and tells you the truth.  So why would you not try it and see what can be achieved?

Logic says that all organisations must evolve.  So if you have an inkling – or maybe a huge gut instinct – that your mirror is not quite telling you the truth then we would be happy to look a little deeper with you.  Your first call to us will discover whether it is indeed review time and, even better, is free-of-charge.

It is simply not possible for everything to be the same as it always was but we know the future can and should be much better.  

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.