Tip of the Spear: The Executive’s Role in Board Leadership

leadership_trainingBy JoAnn Mills

BoardSource has been collecting and analyzing trends in nonprofit board practices since 1994, with a unique approach that surveys both chief executives and board chairs. The “Board report card” is of note because it highlights the following three findings:

  • Performance is not that good! In spite of the fact that boards are made up of high-performing individuals, boards are performing at a so-so, B-minus level.
  • Mediocre board performance is not a surprise. The report confirms what we hear from nonprofit executives and board members alike – the need to “up the ante.”
  • Community Relations, Board Composition, and Fundraising are pulling down the score.

Why it matters.

Board composition is a strong demonstration of organizational values and a key indicator of an organization’s belief about who can lead.

Your organization needs credibility for successful community relations. How your organization shows up to the rest of the world is reinforced by how individual board members engage and with whom. Spreading the word of the worthiness of your mission and your organization’s ability to serve that mission effectively is fundamental to your relevance.

If your organization’s survival depends to any degree on convincing others to contribute money, then successful fundraising is vitally important as well. The impact of recruiting and engaging the right board to demonstrate your values and strengthen your organization’s relevance provides the strongest platform for successful fundraising.

How to get there.

This post speaks to the Executive. Are you the tip of the spear or are you driving a snow plow?

Many executives try to “push” the board forward as an entity in the misguided assumption that the board should and can lead strategic direction. But, as the chief executive, you are the world’s leading expert on your organization – its context, position, direction, long-range objectives, and ultimate value to the community. Your expertise is critical to the forward movement of your organization. Get out in front with it.

Bring your board critical information about everything that affects the vitality of the organization – marketplace trends, program and business innovations in the sector, community needs, shifts in political climate, stakeholder perceptions, partner expectations, and whether or not donors perceive the organization as a worthy investment for their contributions.

Engage your well-informed board as the key intelligence network it should be by asking them to provide their best thinking on the most pressing strategic challenges you as a leader and your organization face. As you guide a “best thinking” iterative process, you help the board shape a shared perspective on critical issues as they help you refine your thinking. Best-thinking collaboration provides the strongest platform for you and the executive committee to shape recommendations for important decisions and actions the board will be asked to take.

Help board members tap the value of their social networks. The board is made up of individuals who represent hubs of relationship networks. The value of social networks is in the number and quality of conversations individuals are having inside their networks and how many conversations overlap. Board members are asked relentlessly to perform transactional activities as ambassadors and fundraisers – painful to engage in and results are poor. Help each board member activate transformational conversations rooted in the “why” of your mission more than the “what and how.” Give your most important ambassadors a better story to tell and help them tell it better to the right people.

Slow down to speed up. Work collaboratively with each board member to identify key relationships and see how they can activate those relationships on behalf of your organization. Get to know each board member personally. Be able to tell each of them exactly what difference they are making to the organization, and what you value them for. Bring every board member your best idea of how s/he can add even more value. The board will perform better as a whole if each individual understands his/her most important contributions.

As the chief executive and the world’s leading expert on your organization, only you can take the lead to help the board engage in best thinking, bring out the best contributions from each individual member, and deliver finer results as a collaborative team. Investing your time and energy in each and every board member’s current and potential value to your organization will help you and the executive committee identify how to build the reach, quality, and impact of one of your most important networks.

JoAnn Mills, CFRE, is a Senior Consultant with Collins Group, a division of Campbell and Company.