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.  

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

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.