In episode 15 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Mary Hiland discussed include:
- The role of the board in day-to-day operations
Mary Hiland brings over 40 years of experience to nonprofit leaders to create a paradigm shift about how to develop an informed and inspired board that is truly an asset. Her mission is to help nonprofit leaders ignite and unleash the potential of the board, getting rid of the mindset that a board is a burden. Her deep expertise and hands-on experience (26 years as a nonprofit executive and 17 as a board member) bring credibility and confidence to nonprofit leaders who know she understands because she’s “been there.” Mary coaches, and mentors executive directors and board leaders. She is a speaker and published author. She has a weekly podcast, Inspired Nonprofit Leadership: conversations to inspire, inform, and support nonprofit leaders.
Carol Hamilton: Welcome, Mary. Great to have you on the podcast.
Mary Hiland: It's great to be here, Carol. It's always great to connect with you.
Carol: So I'm curious, what drew you to the work you do? What would you say motivates you, how would you describe your why?
Mary: Oh, that's a big question. I've been in the field a really long time, so I'm gonna mostly address the work I'm doing now as a consultant, because that's been the last 18 years. I had a different ‘why’ early on when I was much younger, but I see a lot of potential in the boardroom of nonprofits, having been around for over 40 years in the sector. I see a lot of challenges in the relationships between the executives and their boards, and I had great experiences in both of those scenarios. I had great boards, and I had great relationships with my board chairs, and it's painful to me to see that things aren't as good as they could be. I really want to support executives and board members to reach the potential of those relationships and the functioning of the board. So, I’ve developed a passion for that out of just hearing the stories and observing, and knowing on the other side what's possible, seeing the really powerful impact that boards can have and executives who are just thrilled with their boards, believe it or not, out there.
Carol: Yeah. That executive director-board chair relationship is so key to the effectiveness of the organization. What would you say are some of the key elements that can make that relationship successful?
Mary: Well, it's interesting that you should ask me that because I did my doctoral dissertation on the relationship between the Chair of the Board and the Executive Director, and there was no research out there about the question you just asked, what are the critical success factors in this relationship? I really wanted to learn about it. I didn't get all of the factors out, but there were two themes that came out in my interviews with board chairs and their executives. This has held true in all my observations that the first critical success factor, which is probably no surprise to anyone out there, is trust. But what I found was that people don't always know how to build trust. They really don't know how to build relationships. I went into it thinking ‘everybody knows how to do that. this is a natural thing,’ but it isn't for many people. So I developed a model of trust-building, and we could talk more about that if you want, but trust-building is really important. And there are different ways to build trust that you may not think of, and it's easy to lose. Unfortunately, the other was when they're interacting with each other one-on-one, but not necessarily in person, whether it's over the phone, not in email, but over the phone or zoom these days, or in-person, what are you focusing on in your conversation together? There's a lot of options for that, as you can imagine. And there's different types of interactions that you're going to have, and the interactions can help build the trust. But some were focusing just on the executive using the board chairs as a sounding board and a lot of focus on the day-to-day operation. Then others were focusing on more planning together. They were doing some of that sounding board stuff, and Day-to-day stuff, but then they were planning together and being strategic thinkers together, and then the final level of interaction and topics, and focus of what they were talking about was more, the best word I picked for this was leadership. They were actually leading together, thinking about how to engage with the community, thinking about how to engage the board so that there was this depth in the scope of what they talked about and focused on. I don't want to go on and on and on about it, but I don't see too many board chair-executive relationships where they're even thinking about ‘how do we spend our time together? What do we talk about? What are the agendas?’ It's probably the agenda for the board meeting, maybe a problematic issue with the board member, some other more tactical kinds of things, but that is not wrong. You need all of that, but it's trying to think a little more deeply about the quality of what you're working on together.
Carol: Excellent. Going back to what you initially said around building trust. I know a lot of folks now, they may cringe when they hear the word trust-building exercise, or may think that you're going to make them go out into the woods and high ropes course or something like that. What are some straightforward ways that, in your experience, are the building blocks of building trust?
Mary: Well, that's a great question. And you're right about that in the woods. I'm not that a person and I resisted this issue. Let me just share this one little thing. I resisted this in my research because I said if I stand in front of some Executives and Board Members and say, ‘it's important to build trust.’ They'll look at me like ‘did you have to go do a doctorate to learn that? Let me highlight a couple of different things that people may not think about. I think we all know that you can't be lying to people. You have to do what you say you're going to do. These are the things that people think about typically. One that I think is really relevant for Executive Directors, but also for Board Members is competence. There's a type of trust called competence-based trust in my model. You wouldn't hire a plumber to do the electrical work in your house. Now that seems very simplistic, but Executives, how are you showing your Board Members that you are competent in your job? Now when you're first hired, I tell Executives, you probably gave them a resume. You talked about the networks that you have, your skills, your talents, but after you're hired, when you get new board members, do you do that again? Do you share your resume with them? How are you showing your Board when you gain a new skill,or you think you get better at something, or broaden your network, or just do some professional development? How are you sharing that with people? I know Non-Profit executives can be very humble, which is great. I'm not talking about inappropriate bragging here. It's not inappropriate to demonstrate to people that they can have confidence in your leadership, that they can have confidence in your skillset. So that goes both ways with Board Members helping Executives understand that they're competent in their role as a Board Member. What past experience have they had? What leadership experience?
Carol: That's a great point that you make that, when folks are thinking about orienting new board members, I think most of the time they're thinking about orienting to the organization. Lots and lots of information about that. They often forget about orienting to the role of being a Board Member. I think that other layer that you're talking about of the Executive Director basically orienting the new Board Member to themselves as well and their background and what they're bringing to it. Not acting as if the Board Member already essentially knows them.
Mary: I think that is a very often missed opportunity for executive directors. The other one is giving feedback, communication, and trust. We probably think of it as telling the truth, but there are other elements of communication that help you build trust, other behaviors. And one is actually giving feedback in a constructive way, but the other is being willing to receive feedback and it's really important for executives to be sensitive to the fact that if they come across defensive to their Board it's like saying to them, to the Board Member or the Board Chair, ‘your perspective of me is not valid’ and dismissing it because you're defending yourself right out the gate and that doesn't work. It doesn't mean you have to agree with their perception of you, but it means you need to hear it and you need to let them know you heard it. Then you can say, ‘well, have you thought about looking at it this way?’ or, ‘I have a different viewpoint on that,’ but that's not the same thing as being defensive out the gate. When you're defensive and dismissing people, nothing is going to erode trust faster because they don't feel heard and they don't feel that you're hearing them at all in terms of understanding a different viewpoint. They can't trust that you're open to new ideas. The other is your willingness to give feedback because you're saying to that person when you do that, I believe that you are open to learning. I believe that you can grow and change. You're expressing confidence in them because you're taking the time to share something that you've observed or experienced with them. That can go a long way to build trust. So giving that honest feedback and giving it in a timely manner is really important because it also says ‘I'm invested in your success.’ And I'm sure you've seen it over and over again Carol. The supervisor, the leader who waits and waits and waits when the new person joins their workforce to give feedback that's negative because they feel, ‘Oh, they're just new.’ They just dismiss it because giving negative feedback is uncomfortable. Well, think about it as a way you're building trust with that person. So that's another one that I think sometimes we don't think of.
Carol: I know a lot of people don't really have a lot of skills around giving feedback. People talk about it a lot, but I don't know that I was taught in college, or other places, probably not until I was doing my graduate degree in organization development where we really dug into ‘what is feedback?’ What's the purpose? It actually often says more about the person giving the feedback than the person receiving it. You know how to receive it. So in that instance, where you said when someone is starting to get defensive and they can feel that they might be getting a little emotionally hijacked by the situation for them to even think, ‘I'm just going to say, thank you.’
and ‘I'll think about this.’ and come back to it later when they have a little more perspective at a little more distance from the instance that it's happening.
Mary: I think it's helpful out there that we're spending a little more attention on relationships whether it's driven by some of the horrible situations we've seen, but I think that it's a very important part of growing and developing, particularly as a leader. If it's okay Carol, I do have a trust-building action plan that's free if it's okay, I can tell people how they can get it. It tells a little bit more about the types of trust and these behaviors are available that are listed so people can get that by going to Hilander Consulting. That's H-I-L-A-N-D-E-R consulting dot org, org slash trust building. If you go there, you can get that.
Carol: That's in the show notes as well.
Mary: That would be great. Because I created that to help people broaden their perspectives about trust and get some sensitivity.
Carol: Such a big concept that's really helpful to have it broken down into elements. What are some behaviors? What are some actions that you can take to start working towards building that trust and then you also talked about the different kinds of conversations that executives are having with their Board Chairs and named three different kinds: that sounding board day-to-day is the planning that made them move to more of a strategic level, and then the leadership level, and the first one that you mentioned around the day-to-day I think on one hand, that Executive Director role can be a very lonely place where, Executive Directors don't necessarily have or may not have peers that they can reach out to, to have those kinds of conversations at the same time. I would imagine that if they're drawing their Board Chair into those day-to-day conversations about what's going on. While they may be training the board on, your role is not to be involved in staff.
Carol: They're actually drawing the board into that role through that conversation. Oftentimes, the reports that people have in board meetings and all the different things that they use, they include, and then they wonder why Board Members step into wanting to get involved in operations? Well, you spent half the meeting updating them on that.
Mary: And I think this is such an important point and I would not want to leave people thinking that I would be encouraging going down that operational rabbit hole of detail with your Board all the time, particularly your Board Chair, but here's where, when you're kicking off your relationship with your Board Chair, you need to start by talking about ‘how are we going to work together?’ it's important to establish a ground rule with your Board Chair. That if it's okay for me to bring what's on my mind to you and experience our relationship as a safe place to have you as a sounding board, then I need you to understand and tell me that you get it. That I'm not inviting you to come in and tell me how to do my job, I am inviting you to give me your perspective, but it's creating a different place and environment for us to have that conversation. It's not telling you that I want you to change your role or the boundaries that we have together. I think that's a really important thing to establish upfront because your board chair may not know how to interpret that. Carol, we know that if boards don't have meaningful, strategic leadership, meaningful conversations, values-driven, conflict conversations to have. Discussions about looking for a way to make a difference in half meaning they're going to go to what you leave them. So if you're leaving them the details, that's the only place they know how to get engaged, so be careful and that's where your board meeting agendas and people talk about generative boards and those kinds of conversations, and those are very important for that reason.
Carol: Those are some of the basic things, but what are some ways that a board chair and executive director working together can really shape an agenda that leads the board to have those more strategic conversations.
Mary: Well I think it all starts with having a good strategic plan frankly. I really think if all you have is the answer to this question. If we were really successful in advancing our mission three years from now, what results will we have created? And if you're bored and you can't answer that question, you've got a measurable three or four results that you're working at a high level to achieve then of course, next question. And if you haven't done this, definitely a board agenda item is ‘what's the board's role, does the board have a role in achieving that particular goal?’ And if it does, what is it? How's it going to organize around it, and what result is the board going to accomplish in this first year toward that. So when that framework of your work is in place, it creates the opportunity to look at how we’re doing, how are things going? Also for board discussion, how is the board functioning as a team in its own development? Just like you should be thinking as an executive leader about your own development and what are you doing? So thinking through those higher-level strategic issues, any particular challenges, making room on the agenda for discussing and learning about what some of the challenges facing the organization are. So you can't say exactly what's coming up for you, but that's what you want to bring up and shape that agenda. You're going to have some ongoing work that you need board decisions around, the regular oversight things. Again, the progress on the strategic goals. So if you have the framework around you, hopefully it makes it easier for you to know what we need to talk about.
Carol: Yeah. I think just even having a practice around, ‘we're gonna consider one higher-level strategic question at every board meeting.’ And also separate out, ‘is this a conversation to have a discussion about this and brainstorm and just explore the issue?’ Are we learning something, are we getting some outside input about this? Or is this a point at which we've spent plenty of time discussing and now we have a concrete proposal and we're going to make a decision, but I think there's some folks who want to move to a decision real quick and others who want to explore longer. So being clear about where you are in the conversation on those strategic issues can be really helpful as well.
Mary: Yes. And I think just going through the process of creating awareness about decision-making, ‘how are we making decisions?’ That could be a great conversation at a board meeting. I had a client who called me and said, come teach our board how to make decisions.
Carol: I had a conversation with someone this morning about that. It’s hard for groups. They come with where they've been, how they've done it in other places, all folks are operating from all sorts of different assumptions. So getting that out on the table and talking through, ‘how have we made decisions? How do we want to do that moving forward?’ It's really important.
Mary: That's right. That was a very interesting challenge for me. It was a long time ago to really look at what we know about decision-making and this was a very high-stakes decision and there was a split vote on the board. And when the board, not knowing Robert's Rules of Order, which I don't recommend using by the way, I do think you need something, but they had thought that if someone calls for the question, you have to stop discussion and that's actually not true. When you stop discussion arbitrarily like that, because one person says let's just vote in this case, resulted in a split vote. And one side of that boat got up and walked out of the room because they felt so discounted and not valued, and they were not ready to make a decision.
Carol: Rules can be useful and they have their limitations. When you're in a messy, controversial conversation, it's probably time to put them aside a bit and just allow the conversation to go.
Mary: Yeah, one thing that I've used is that often boards want to have a high level of agreement and may even be trying to work towards consensus and Sam Kaner has the same ‘consensus continuum’ where, it's like one to eight, like I'm totally for it down to one being ‘I veto this’ and all the different gradations in between and just getting a sense of where people are. I was on a board where we had a high stakes decision, and it really was not one where there was a good solution. So, we agreed ahead of time that as long as we got everyone to a three, which was, ‘I think I can live with this. I don't love it, but I can live with it.’ That was going to be good enough because we knew that we weren't going to get to any solution that folks were going to be super excited about wholeheartedly. I think that it's a good strategy for the board chair particularly to stop discussion sometimes and just test and say, let's just do a sample vote here so we see where people are on this. It allows you to have a more efficient meeting if everybody agrees, but they aren't realizing they're agreeing. Also to allow for some agreements about, ‘well, let's talk about it for another 20 minutes or something.’ I think that the value of pushing for consensus is that people will stretch and be more creative about solutions if it isn't too easy to get there. So that's an opportunity, but not always achievable.
Carol: Yeah. You've talked about a third level where the board chair and the executive are working at what you described as a leadership level. Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by that kind of working?
Mary: Yeah. Now this is about what they're focusing on when they're together. What I found in my research, and I can give you a link, it's not on the top of my head, but a link to an online journal that I wrote a summary of all this research in so [the listeners] can get a little more on this if they're interested. But it was interesting because the pairs that had the highest level of trust, which we didn't talk about, but it's called identification-based trust. And it's when you don't just know the person, you identify with them and it's a little more personal. Those board chairs and executives were sharing more personal [information], but appropriately personal [information]. Like, one board chair knew the executive director - and this may seem silly, but it was really important - collected teddy bears. So he bought her a teddy bear, little things like that. So the highest level of trust pairs were also the ones who most often were at this third level, which was cumulative by the way, when they got together, they were focusing on what I called management planning, and then leadership. Now at the leadership level, it was as if they were standing side-by-side facing out into the community, but they had engaged the board with them. So whatever that took to be thinking about being more outward on their impact, more focused strategically on that versus some of the pairs that were maybe stuck a little more at the managing level where they were always working on what's going on in the organization, always focused only on the organization, the planning groups were focused on the organization sometimes, but also the board and working together more strategically. The leadership level of pairs was more the characteristic thing was that they were doing all of that, but also very outwardly oriented about constituents, about impact, about things going on in the community. So I'm not sure how to describe it more than that. I'd have to go back to my transcripts - this was a long time ago - and read some of the stories.
Carol: I think that gives a good perspective. You can imagine lifting your head up and looking over to the rise and looking outward rather than just in the details.
Mary: Yeah. So then it was cumulative. It wasn't mutually exclusive. It was just, they never got beyond a certain focus, and nobody agreed to be interviewed that didn't think they were doing a good job together. So in that sense, the research was biased. Cause I didn't have any horrible pairs. I had people say, ‘well, I don't want to be interviewed with my board chair.’ I interviewed them separately, but they just didn't want to invite their board chair to participate.
Carol: So, what would you say more broadly beyond the board chair, the executive, what would you say the executive needs to be cultivating in terms of engaging the whole board?
Mary: Well, I think there are some additional things they overlap with the trust-building, obviously you need to do that. You need to build your relationships one-on-one and do you need to be there collectively with them? Don’t control that you're the only one interacting with the board as part of trust is trusting that your staff can interact with the board without you having to be paranoid and controlling about that. But I think that one of the key issues where I see challenges for executives is in communication. You may have 12 to 15 board members, and every single one of them has a different preference for how you communicate with them. How much should be provided on a particular issue. Some people just want the bottom line, and other people want volumes. This was my experience when I was an executive. So I think being proactive with your board and as you get new board members, having the conversation about ‘what are their preferences,’ but then collectively as a board raising awareness that everybody has different preferences and getting the board to agree with you on how much they want, how they're going to communicate. How do you manage say, email communications? Do you have a subject line flag for action now? Information only when you can get to it? Communication agreements and guidelines that you create together are very powerful and can be very helpful for executives because they're not trying to meet 14 different, 15 different people's needs for different kinds of communication.
Carol: You're talking about emails. I've seen those on agendas and hadn't thought about then transferring it to that information that you're sending out to folks of: is this for your backup, for background decision, I need input right away that that's really key to have some agreements around those so that people can differentiate and really focus in on what's the most important.
Mary: Yeah. And I think the other thing that I said about competence, there's a gal who did some research on the board-executive relationship years ago, Maria Galinsky. She coined the phrase ‘executive assets.’ She said that that's something you want to keep your board informed of all the time. That's where I picked up this idea and then melded it with the concept of competence-based trust. That's important for you to keep in mind, and as you're building trust, then you have the safety of not having surprises, which we all know, but different board members are again interpreting surprise differently. So I think that's important.
Carol: Well I'm going to shift gears a little bit here. On every episode, I play a game, where I ask one random icebreaker question. So I've got one here for you: what's something about you that surprises people when they first hear it?
Mary: Oh boy, something that surprises people when they first hear it…. I'm trying to think. I know that there's something out there that I used to say, ‘well, this one, I don't like to say very often because I don't want to feel like I'm bragging.’ I have five degrees and that surprises people sometimes. Also I don't have a middle name, I used to sing when I was younger. There's a few little things like that that I don't talk about very often.
Carol: Well, thank you for sharing that. So what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you? What's emerging in the work that you're doing now?
Mary: Well I'm close to finishing my book. I'm very excited about that. I have the final chapter, which is the wrap-up chapter to write. Then of course it goes through that whole long process of deep editing and doing the book thing, but I'm really excited because this book is based on four executive directors and it's based on a couple of my studies about boards, how boards get better and what do you do about the problems you're having with your board? I'll just quickly say that, what I learned after doing a lot of research and case review was that every problem you have with your board fits into one of three areas: capacity, connection, and culture. So I talk about that, give examples of that, but more importantly for executives, I talk about: what are you going to do about it? So I find that - and you probably do too Carol, in your work - that a lot of times when people have issues with their board, the solution is a capacity solution. Where they're saying, we just come and train my board about their job, their roles and responsibilities. I get this every week and then they'll be better bored. Well, training is important, but it's not going to change behavior. So I'm hoping that my book helps executives understand when that's not going to be enough. And when they need to look a little deeper and what they can do when they do feel that the problem's a little deeper, so it's not so overwhelming.
Carol: We'll have to have you back on when the book is published.
Mary: That would be great.
Carol: So you already mentioned your website and the free resource that people can download about trust building. We'll make sure to put those into the show notes, so folks can find them, but yeah, thanks so much. It was great having you on and great delving into that board chair-executive director relationship that's just so key.
Mary: Well, thank you Carol. Thanks so much for having me. I love that you have a podcast out there too, and that we're able to reach people through this medium. It's very exciting, I think. I just want to wish your listeners well and encourage them to take care of themselves and encourage you to do the same.
Carol: Absolutely! That's so important. Well, thank you so much.
Mary: You are welcome. Bye-bye.
In episode 12 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Elizabeth Woolfe, discussed include:
● The importance of an interim director for organizations
● The process of transitioning and the strain that puts on an organization
● The importance of having a plan in place for when your leader leaves
● Growth mindset with Boards
● What the role of the Board and the role of the staff are in an organization and how those differ
● The importance of taking breaks for yourself
Elizabeth Woolfe is a lifelong nonprofit professional with expertise in affecting strategic change and facilitating growth for organizations, as well as in assisting boards and organizations through transitions.She also has strength in building philanthropic relationships between nonprofit and for-profit companies, facilitating collaborations, and program development. Her particular areas of interest are interim leadership, management of organizations and boards, strategic assessment, organizational development, board functionality, and relationship building.
Carol Hamilton: Welcome Elizabeth. It's great to have you on the podcast.
Elizabeth Woolfe: Thanks. It's great to be here and please call me Liz. It's shorter.
Carol: That’s true! So, what drew you to the work that you do? What's the why, what motivates you in the work that you pursue?
Elizabeth: Well, my usual answer to that is that I've spent my entire career, except for one very brief foray, in the non-profit space, and I generally view that as a calling, I don't know that I ever questioned it.
I think from early on, I had a desire to do things that helped people and to do work that seemed - whatever this word might mean to people - meaningful. And I was never pulled in any other direction, but to do that work. It was a path that manifested itself and I followed it. Once I got the hang of it, I was able to make decision after decision to stay on that path. I just don't know that it was ever a real decision to embark upon that.
Carol: That's interesting. Cause I started out my very first job working for a small business that helped people get on talk shows. It was this very interesting little niche that I was working in and found that I was pretty good at that promotional aspect of getting our folks on shows, but after leaving that, it was a conscious decision for me to move into the sector because I thought, if I'm going to use these skills to promote causes, I want to promote causes and support things that I really believe in, and help people in a way that I think is really functional, away from ‘whoever pays the bills is who you’re going to promote.
Elizabeth: I used to call that the dark side. There were periods of time where I had this thought that, ‘oh, I will go to work for an agency or a for-profit company that has a foundation or something like that.’ And I would play around with that and I would maybe look for different positions and maybe go on an interview. But I would walk out of the interview going, ‘I don't want to do that. This doesn't sound like a fit.’ And without really questioning it - my company is called intuition consulting and it was named that because I feel strongly about following your intuition. And it's something that I recommend to others, but I also take my own medicine and do for myself. And I guess I was not questioning it because I just did that from the start.
Carol: So feeling that alignment, which is great. You serve as an interim director for organizations as part of your work. What would you say organizations gain by engaging an interim?
Elizabeth: Well, the transition period in an organization, especially when they're losing a position like a founder, it's crucial to build in some space where everyone can experience what that feels like before embarking on the next phase of their existence. So I can say that I do a lot of interim work as the interim, but I do a lot of transition and succession planning with organizations. And I almost always recommend that they consider hiring an interim for that reason, especially with a founder that might have been with the organization for a very long time, it's a big change. It's like when you bake cookies, or when you make pancakes and the first pancake just doesn't turn out well, if you hire someone too quickly, that first pancake just might not turn out that well, and that's unfortunate because then the organization is once again plunged into a period of transition, which is not really healthy or something I'd recommend. I think interim work is extremely interesting, and transition work in general is really important to understand with organizations, especially small or mid-sized organizations that require some degree of stability to anchor them with many of their functions.
Carol: I think taking that time, And, and it's hard. I think often, organizations want to jump to find that new person as quickly as possible and be on to the next thing. But you don't want the new person hired to be an accidental interim - almost like a rebound - executive director. I think that taking the time to have the organization experience a different style of leadership is important. It seems like organizations can also deal with things or have harder conversations with the organizations to get them ready to set the next person up for success.
Elizabeth: The statistics about new leaders following a founder coming in and not being successful are really shocking. So the interim can be that bridge very successfully for all of the reasons that you just outlined. It's like a palate cleanser, it's a good thing to try.
Carol: What are some of the things that you observe organizations experiencing when they go through those transitions?
Elizabeth: Well, I've managed a few big transitions with several of my clients and I think the most important one is really what the trickle-down effect is. It's not really just where it's happening, it's in every relationship that the organization has. I think oftentimes that's a second thought or maybe not even thought of by the board, or by the departing leader, or by whoever is left to understand that everyone who interfaced with this person is affected by this person's departure. I'm focusing on a founder or a CEO, just because that's really the most formative of those relationships, but when you have relationships with funders, when those people have those relationships that are very closely held, there's a lot of insecurity and instability that can affect the organization adversely if it's not handled correctly. Oftentimes, that's the best reason to have an interim because that person can focus on those relationships. Otherwise it's a board member, or maybe a secondary staff person that might not be as comfortable relationship-building and relationship cultivating as the leader was, and it could be really debilitating for the organization.
Carol: So, what are some things that you would say help those major transitions go better?
Elizabeth: Well, I think giving it the necessary amount of time [is important]. It's not a quick process. I usually say from start to finish, the succession-building process should be very conscious, and it's not a question of, ‘we want to get rid of our leader.’ It's really more, ‘we want to prepare for the eventuality that we may have to replace this person for whatever reason.’ There are good reasons, and there are not-so-good reasons. There are things that can be planned for well in advance, and unfortunately there are emergency situations that come up that, if you have no succession plan, even a rudimentary one can be even more upsetting and more traumatic for the organization. I think that this is always something to consider and that it builds in that amount of breathing space so you can say, ‘oh, wow. Now here we are at this crossroads, but we've planned for this. We know that we can manage it using these steps, whether we use an interim or not.’ Replacing someone doesn't take five minutes and I almost always recommend using a search firm, especially for a CEO or any C-suite leader, because it's almost impossible to manage a search at that level and continue to do regular necessary work. With one of my clients, the entire process from start to finish took eight months. That was not an unusual amount of time, it was pretty much the norm. But, if that were without an interim and without a search firm, it would probably take twice as long.
Carol: So, thinking about always keeping succession planning front and center, what are some of the things that need to be part of that succession plan, and what are the elements that organizations can do when it's not an immediate need?
Elizabeth: Well, first I have a really good idea of what that position is and what it does from the very tiny day-to-day to the bigger picture, where does this position sit in the organizational structure? Obviously a CEO is normally at the top of the organizational structure but, in reality, what does this person’s responsibility involve? Do they manage all of the external relationships with funders, or is that something that is co-managed or taken over by a development person, or someone else? Those relationships are really key, as I said earlier, and I think what's really important is an understanding of how engaged the board is with the organization and with that person - usually the leadership - what kinds of relationships do they have and can that relationship be managed in a different way? Once you identify where all of these succession-related issues lie, what's most important, is really a thorough understanding of what the connections are. It's always nice to be able to say, ‘under these circumstances, this is the protocol we will follow.’ You can create that. In real life, things happen and times are crazy. I know an organization that just had their CEO announce that they were retiring in January and, this person would stay until they found a replacement and then COVID hit. All of that had to be rethought, because it wasn't really the right time for there to be another major transition, which is fine, and luckily, the CEO was able to say, ‘yes, I will postpone my retirement for at least another six months.’ You have to be flexible and nimble and many smaller and mid-size organizations are capable of that, which is the good side of things.
Carol: I think having a plan sketched out, you may not follow it exactly, but you're not starting from scratch and you're not having to think through it all as you're also having to start doing it all. Also, I think a lot of people, when they hear succession planning, they mistake it for ‘I need to identify who I'm grooming as my successor.’ and it really isn't that, necessarily.
Elizabeth: No, it can be part of it. I mean, if it's an organization that has a leadership pipeline, it could be that, and most often in larger organizations, yes, that is more typical, but in smaller organizations, there's not enough people working there for it to really be an appropriate way of organizing succession. And I encourage organizations to have a running list of people that they have in their orbit. That could be either someone that they consider in a search, or someone who they would consider to be part of a search committee who knows the organization well enough and who's connected enough to the work that is done there, that they could be helpful in identifying who could be next. It's nice to have an advisory group at the ready in case they are needed. Sometimes some of those people could be appropriate candidates.
Carol: Right, So we've talked about boards a little bit, a unique aspect of nonprofits is the role of a board in the governance of the organization. What are some common mistakes that you see boards making maybe in dealing with succession or more broadly.
Elizabeth: Do we have longer than an hour? I could go on for days with that. Boards are one of my favorite things and that isn’t always an easy thing to say. I do actually enjoy board work. It's so interesting and multifaceted, and as you say, it's an integral part of a nonprofit, or it should be an integral part of a nonprofit’s organization and functionality. Specific to succession the board is really key and it's a time where I've seen boards really rise to the occasion which is great. And I've also seen boards that can't, and it's not over succession or transition. It's really a deep-seeded functionality or dysfunctionality as the case may be, but that situation of change exacerbates one or the other, or brings it to the forefront. To go general, boards have a great deal of responsibility. If they choose to exercise it, if they don't choose to exercise it, the organization can still function, but the board does have, at a minimum, a set of responsibilities in terms of guidance and in terms of advising. And some boards go a lot deeper and some are more strategic, but at the very least, they are more objective eyes on what the organization does, and what direction the organization is headed in, and how well the organization fulfills its mission on all of these different levels.
Carol: You talked about founders and oftentimes a founder will be a very dynamic personality and all of that is what helped them create the organization and then build something, which then creates the dynamic of a board that's really following that person and not necessarily in a real partnership. So when that founder leaves and they have to step up, it's not the way that things have been done in the past and can be harder. And that makes that transition particularly fraught.
Elizabeth: I couldn’t agree more. That's so common, and I think if [the board] doesn't view themselves as ever evolving, then they don't ever get to the point where they escape that, regardless of what happens on the leadership side, even when a founder leaves and new leadership comes in. If the board is still firmly entrenched in what used to be, they're not going to be as effective. That can be a real recipe for disaster, because then you have someone coming in new and fresh as a leader who wants to take the organization to the next level or in a different direction, and the board is stuck. When I do board-coaching and board-development, it's really to view boards on an ever-expanding continuum, where they go from this working board as they commonly are in the very beginning, and very much like sheep following the leader to something that becomes more appropriate for a later iteration of the organization where they become a governing board and it's a completely different set of skills. That's why board rotation, board transition, and cultivating new board members is so important because the people that are present at the birth of an organization are not necessarily what the organization needs 5, 10, or 15 years in. And sometimes, you'll have that very dynamic leader that everyone's following, and in other cases, it may be a group of people around a kitchen table. So they've always had a collaborative relationship, but then when they do bring on staff, everybody's been so involved [that] letting go and allowing staff to start doing the work that they need to do, that can be challenging. At the same time, I think that boards have an opportunity to then look at other ways to be involved in the organization besides being on the board, [although] when it's small, that may be the only volunteer role and that board does everything, as a working board, or volunteer board, or in an all-volunteer organization, but then to start differentiating, what we actually need from a board member and if you want to be involved in this organization because you are very excited about and passionate about environmental issues, but you really love getting your hands dirty and doing that stream monitoring, then it's fine. Go do that. It's hard for people to then say, ‘well, but we've always had all those people on the boards. We do it differently,’ or worse that this is what we've always done, it's not successful anymore, but this is what we've always done. So we're just going to keep banging our head against the wall because this is all we know. It's very hard to crack open that door and say, ‘look, there's a whole world out there for you. You could be this, and you could be this, and you could be this, except for the fact that you're looking in your rear view mirror, or living in the past. I've experienced all of the scenarios that you just went through. Some in my consulting life as a CEO myself, and also as a consultant and as a coach, and they're all very big and hairy problems. Every board is different. The chemistry is different, the environment that they're in is different. So as a consultant, you have to visit that with fresh eyes all the time. That's why I always say that even the incremental successes are to be celebrated because boards are so hard to move. And it's very rare that you find a board that welcomes this ongoing change and development with open arms. It's much more the case that they are really change-averse and, even when they understand the rationale, they are so terrified to let go of it. It's fascinating, really.
Carol: I'm curious if you had someone who was thinking about volunteering on a nonprofit board, what's important for them to understand as they step into that role?
Elizabeth: Well, I think unless they've had previous successful experience, there's a lot of people who come to a board, and they've been on a board before and it may not have been a healthy board and they carry all of this baggage with them. So their expectations are very different ‘cause they either want it to be the same, ‘cause they don't know any better, or they want it to be different because they do [know better]. Depending upon where they're going, that may or may not be the case. I like to get them all fresh when they haven't been on a board before and mold them to what they should be. Those are the most successful ones. But I think in terms of advice, always be aware of the fact that, even though there is a line between what the organization does day-to-day: their programs and how they execute them, and what the board's responsible for: the governments, and the guidance, and the strategic-level stuff. Be aware of that difference, but also be aware of where the gray area is, where those two things can meet and really be productive. Because you can't be too far apart, but you can't be too close together.
Carol: Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by that?
Elizabeth: Sure. So it's really a question of keeping the board from micromanaging what the day-to-day of the organization should be. In other words, the board should be responsible for this 35,000 foot view of the organization. What is the strategy that they're going to implement moving forward, how are they going to execute it in the bigger sense? It's the program staff and the CEO and the development staff's responsibility to mold that out of the lump of clay that they're given and make that into programs, [and figure out] how much they have to raise in order to do them, who's going to run them, who they’re going to serve, and how they’re going to measure their success. There's a big difference within those two worlds, but where they peacefully coexist is in having these kinds of conversations of translating what this strategy is. So we want to get to this, we want to serve this many people, or we want to execute our mission by creating a program that brings an awareness of what we do to more people. That's it for the board. They can outline that strategic framework and hand it over and have really productive conversations about what that means. But once that happens, they don't need to be on top of the program staff saying, ‘well, what does the program look like?’ ‘Who's going to teach that?’ ‘What days are you going to do it?’ That's not the board's role.
So, every episode, I play a game at the end where I ask you a random icebreaker question. So... if you could have any celebrity to be your best friend, who would you pick and why?
Elizabeth: It's either Oprah or Bruce Springsteen, but I don't think I'd be able to talk if I were with Bruce Springsteen, Oprah, because, well, first of all, I've looked up to her and, and followed her for so long.
I feel like I am already her best friend, although she doesn't know me. We read the same books. I almost always read - even sometimes before she picks them - from the book club. We have a lot of common interests. She's funny. She likes all different kinds of food. She loves to travel. She's really interested in helping people. I just think we have tons of things in common and would make great best friends.
Carol: That's awesome. So what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you? What's emerging in your work?
Elizabeth: So right now I'm right in the middle of a little interim CEO gig that I'm doing for one of my clients. That will be concluding at the end of October. Then I'm hoping to take a little bit of time off because I need it and deserve it. And I think self care is very important. I always encourage the CEOs that I coach to make sure that they take good care of themselves because it's not an easy job. It's sometimes a very lonely place. So I would hope that I will be able to do a little bit of work, but a little bit of relaxing between the end of October and the end of the year. As far as next year is concerned, it's really interesting because I never really know. And for 2021, I really, really don't know because nobody can predict what's going to be happening anymore. So I am keeping myself pretty open and not letting that freak me out at all. I’m figuring that whatever comes along will be something that I will be able to consider and I’m not worrying too much about it right now. I don't think stress and worry really get you very far and I've trained myself to really not worry about it.
Carol: That's great. So how can people find out more about you and get in touch?
Elizabeth: So, my website is intuitionconsult.com, and I'm pretty easy to find on LinkedIn. I'm very interested in connecting with people for all different kinds of networking and mentoring-type things. I would encourage whoever wants to talk to me more to please reach out.
Carol: All right. Well, thank you so much. I appreciate our conversation.
Elizabeth: Thank you, I had a great time.
My goal is to interview a variety of people who help nonprofit and association professionals do their work more effectively. I hope to learn from them.
I especially hope that our conversations will spark insights for you that you can apply to the work you do in your organization.
Board development is one of those “sharpen the saw” skills that is too easy to let slip. Yet if your organization makes it a habit and builds it into its regular practices, it will serve to keep your board vital and contributing to the organization’s health.
BoardSource describes a seven step process for building your board.
Identify – The first step is to identify what skills, characteristics and connections are important for your organization. Once you have identified what you need on your board, you can then ask what you have already and what is missing? Where can we find board members to fill identified gaps? Organizations often create a matrix to complete this assessment. Try to go beyond just your current board members networks to recruit board members for greater diversity.
Cultivate - You then need to come up with a list of potential people to cultivate that match your needs. Remember to start building a relationship and getting to know the person before you make the ask. How can you help them get to know your organization and keep them informed of your progress? How can you get to know them, their skills, talents and interests? What ways could they become involved with your organization short of board membership? Having stepping stone roles to leadership gives you greater insight into what people bring and their capacities.
Recruit - When you go to make the pitch be sure to tell them why you want and need them on your board. How can you make this personal? Be clear about your expectations of board members and their responsibilities. Too often people minimize these requirements thinking it is the only way to get people to say yes. If you minimize the expectations, you will likely get folks who then don’t show up the way you really need them to for your organization. It is also helpful to be able to articulate what benefit they will receive by being involved. This could be skills they are able to develop, relationships and networks they will be able to plug into the satisfaction of being involved in something important.
Orient – When new people come on the board, it is key to give them an orientation. This orientation should cover your organization, what it does and how it does things. It also needs to address the key elements of board service. Don’t assume that folks know what being on a board entails. Would a buddy system with a more experienced board member make sense? Beyond just an orientation session, are there ways that you can integrate education into your board meetings? Holding some time for regular education sessions for your whole board will help keep the board’s role front and center with the whole group.
Involve - Once someone has joined your board, how will you go about discovering your board members interests and availability? Do you have committees and task forces that would be supported by their skills and talents? People often volunteer to learn new skills and flex strengths that they do not get to use as much in their day job. Don’t assume because someone does something for a living such as marketing or accounting that that is the role they want to play with your organization. They may want to flex leadership muscles they are not having the opportunity to use at work. How will you solicit feedback on their experience? How will you hold people accountable for what they commit to do? What are additional ways you can express appreciation for what they contribute to your organization?
Evaluate – A well functioning board evaluates its work. A good practice is to conduct an annual assessment of its performance. Many nonprofit support centers have template assessments you can use for self-assessment, such as this one. With this regular practice, it serves to remind board members of all aspects of their responsibilities and can help you catch any problems early.
Rotate - Strong boards develop new leadership. This is facilitated by policies on term limits and enforced time off the board. Often times board members can re-up for a second term, but don’t let this become an automatic practice. Before re-electing someone for an additional term, consider your matrix of skills/needs. Does this person still fit your requirements? Do you have policies that enable you to ask a board member to resign if they have been inactive and/or missed a certain number of meetings? How are you developing new leadership? Do you have ways for people to get involved and volunteer other than board service? How are you preparing people for the chair role and other officer positions?
In addition to these seven, I would add “celebrate” and “educate” as two constants to support your board’s service.
Need help with your board, inquire about a free coaching session.
What does all this growth mean for us going forward?
Challenge: An education related organization had accomplished all the key goals in their current strategic plan. Over this period, the organization experienced substantial growth both in the number of clients it was serving as well as the scope of the services they were providing the field. With the increased staff strength, the board had become accustomed to relying on staff for direction and strategic thinking. The organization needed to assess the implications of this growth, ensure that there was alignment of staff and board in order to set direction and clear goals for the next 3-5 years.
Approach: After interviews with each of the board members, and external stakeholder interviews as well as focus groups with staff, I facilitated a one-day retreat with the board and staff leadership. The retreat focused on:
• conducting an environmental scan to identify key trends impacting the organization’s work,
• reviewing the themes from the interviews and focus groups and discuss their implications
• envisioning the organization’s future impact on the field,
• resulting in identifying two to three key strategic goals for the organization.
Results: The organization now has a new strategic plan with clear support from both the board and staff leadership. The process helped the board step into its strategic role. Board meetings now have time dedicated to focusing on strategic questions. Staff leadership was also able to recognize how some of their actions encouraged the board to rely on them. Thus they are now equipped to make different choices moving forward. They can be clearer about what is staff work and what is the board’s responsibility.
Are our board and staff focused on the right things?
Challenge: A local land trust organization had a regular good practice of conducting a board self-assessment each year. Over the past couple years, a few indicators created some concern. The group decided it would benefit from outside facilitation for its annual board staff retreat to dive into the issues raised in the self-assessment, including roles and responsibilities between board and staff.
Approach: In addition to the board self-assessment results, I conducted a survey of staff and board. My goal was to learn about the board’s current concerns and to understand the staff’s perspective on the organization’s current state. During the retreat, after a brief presentation on nonprofit life cycles, the group considered where their organization stood in its development. I then shared the themes from the survey and had the group discuss the implications.
Board and staff learned that they had more in common than they thought on their perspectives of what the organization needed to improve in terms of operations. It also became clear that the board was eager to stay at the governance level and focus on longer-term strategic issues. Through small group work, the groups considered its current initiatives and areas for future development and sketched out next steps. The group then gave each small group feedback.
Results: Through the retreat, the board and staff were able to open up conversations focused on roles and responsibilities that they had had some trepidation about addressing. The conversations revealed more agreement than individuals had expected. The group identified areas for growth and left with increased clarity on roles, goals and next steps.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.
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