Your board was formed to fulfill a vital function for your organization. In a perfect world, that function provides guidance, influence, and continuity, all of which lead to results. Unfortunately, in an imperfect world, a disengaged or, even worse, a dysfunctional board often delivers just the opposite. It can result in frustration, gridlock, poor performance, and communication breakdowns. While most board members have good intentions, they can only serve your organization to the degree that they are enabled to do so. In other words, the value of your board’s talent, knowledge, experience, and connections depends greatly on what your organization is prepared to utilize.
Consider your board as being your connection to a vast sea of resources. Going to the sea with a tiny bucket yields only that which the tiny bucket can contain. If that bucket has holes, it yields even less. Following are 10 ideas for increasing your organization’s capacity to achieve higher engagement from your board and, thus, realize more of its potential.
1. Know your board members
As with all the people on your team, it is crucial to have board members who are a good fit with your vision, values, mission, and culture. The best way to achieve this, especially if the board will be with you for a time, is to get to know all you can about your individual board members. Learn their talents, career history, and social circles. Also, find out what motivates them: the drivers behind their success. The more you can align with their personal values and motivation, the more likely they will be to support yours.
2. Inform your board of the basics
When you work daily in an environment, many of its aspects become second-nature. Do not presume that your board understands your organization’s culture or how its vision and values are being implemented. Your board is an integral part of your team. Help it to operate within this same framework by making a habit of communicating guiding principles and making decisions accordingly.
3. Ask the right questions
Your board members come with a diverse set of talents and experiences. In order to keep their contributions relevant and useful, it is up to you to ask for the type of involvement you need. Without your thoughtful requests, their contributions will be subject to their own interpretations, and they will fill in the blanks as best they can. In contrast, when you ask the right questions, you open the door to better solutions. Asking the right question is not always easy. Take your time in identifying the challenges at hand. Ask open-ended questions that point to these challenges and draw upon their background and experience for possible answers.
4. Set your expectations
Be clear about the level of performance you expect from your board. This implies that you are clear about the level of leadership they are capable of providing. Good board members want to give you the benefit of their collective experience. However, if they are limited to performing administrative tasks or simple functions, there is little in the way of leadership that they are able to offer. Set expectations of your board that are worthy of their talents and watch their excitement grow.
5. Adjust the volume
In any group, there will be some who are outspoken and others who are not. Just because one person is not as loud or forceful as another does not mean that the insights he or she provides are any less important or valid. Explore ways of equalizing the volume of individuals on your board. This may require some creative rearranging. For example, consider forming a subcommittee or task force that allows specific board members to shine, especially where their talents are best used.
6. Take action or table the discussion
When your board makes a recommendation, it is important that they receive a timely response. It is possible that a recommendation is not feasible within a budget or specific time frame. If a reason prevents you from taking immediate action, do not let the recommendation go unattended. Be certain that you follow up with the board and let them know the situation. If action is not possible, then seek agreement to table the discussion for a later time at which it will then be revisited. Following through with responses to all recommendations, whether they are actionable or not, will prevent ax-grinding and frustration from welling up during meetings.
7. Expect discomfort
Your board exists to provide you with perspectives that are outside the purview of your immediate organization. Therefore, it is likely they will provide you with observations or advice outside of your comfort zone and leave you feeling less than confident. This may simply be part of their job. If their function is to provide mentorship and guidance, then you can anticipate that you will be stretched from time to time. Do not disregard their advice. Do not avoid it because it is unfamiliar. Instead, establish a plan for evaluating the new concepts or challenges you are offered. Follow through with your board and implement a plan for moving forward together.
8. Establish priorities
Big ideas often require large sums of resources and time. When you have a group of big thinkers together in one room, the ideas can be daunting. While keeping your board aligned with your organization’s visions, values, and missions, also keep them informed of available resources and current initiatives. Obtain their help in prioritizing their own ideas, thus avoiding the trap of having to say no to them too often. It will empower them and allow greater focus on high-priority items.
9. Be specific with your requests
High-level ideas typically are too general to be executed. From those ideas, you will need to develop action steps that combine to accomplish the idea set forth. Ask your board to help with making high-priority ideas executable. List for them the initiatives that will have to take place, and call on their talents in order to enlist their help and support.
10. Lead your leaders
Without a doubt, your board is comprised of strong leaders, some of whom may be inclined to take charge. While their leadership skills are attributes in many ways, you do not want them to become overbearing or out of control. Maintain your position of authority in a calm and respectful way. Acknowledge them and thank them for all they do. Meanwhile, remember your role in representing the greater whole of your organization and maintain your authority on its behalf. Your best leaders will respect your fair and consistent position as a function of a well-run organization.
Linda Ruhland is an accomplished speaker and business leader who offers practical approaches to problem-solving, performance improvement and goal achievement. She is the founder of the Spirit of Business Success Community, a platform for inspiring business and personal success through shared stories and exceptional experiences, and founding member at SuccessAuthorities. She also produced and edited Amazing Workplace: Creating the Conditions that Inspire Success along with 12 esteemed thought leaders as a means to provide people access to tools and techniques that will make positive changes in their work life.
This article is reprinted from Issue #10 of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today so that you won’t miss other actionable articles that will help you run your nonprofit organization with less pain and more gain!
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