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aligning your board - with Dr. Pat Bradshaw

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We are talking about boards, everyone's favourite topic!

But also more specifically how to create a high functioning board. And part of that is understanding what doesn't work with board functionality. So let's start, do you want to tell us a little bit about, uh, your work with boards in your research?

Yeah, my research has spanned a number of years. You and I share a philosophy that there's no one answer on board problems. You know, I teach organizational behaviour. The answer to every question, it all depends.

Exactly. That's the same answer to every fundraising question. I think we're onto a trend.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about different kinds of frameworks and ways of thinking about boards and I'm happy to have a conversation with you about some of the dynamics around power between board and staff.

Yeah, let's, let's dive right in. Can you talk to us about some of the more common circumstances or what that plays out to be for organizations?

One of the variables or factors that determine how the power plays out is where in the life cycle of that board is.

So let's start with an organization in its infancy and what are some common challenges that they face? Oh even with no paid staff, how, how do they work through some of the governance challenges that, at that point?

Well, they're so far down in operations, they're writing funding grants and they're collecting books in their garage and they're sitting around their kitchen table. So it's really hard to think strategically. But as they get more successful, you then start to have a staff member and then the question becomes how do we divide up the roles? Who's doing what? It's really hard to give up control.

You want to get to a place with really nice collaborative working relationships. Something I call the power-sharing model. But again, as you add more staff, you need to start to pull out and the board needs to step into the core rules of fiduciary responsibility. They have to be able to take responsibility for the performance management of the staff. And all of a sudden sometimes that collaborative joint venture starts to become more hierarchical and the board is still, well what's called super managing. They are into everything. They're passionate. They're committed there by the vision. You've got the founders on there.

What are some tools that boards can leverage or worth that they can do to understand that it's important that they step back and into that governance model, but also, how do we make it a little easier for them?

Well, I think this is where maybe getting a little more formalized, getting some policies and board terms and saying, you know what, after two, three-year terms, you should probably step aside and then you start thinking strategically about who do we need on the board to bring complementary skills to the staff. So then a skills matrix might make sense and who in our constituency needs to be represented on the board. And then you start holding the staff accountable saying, come back to us with budget updates and reports on your success in fundraising and you build that trust.

So understanding that at a time when you start to hire staff, you need to formalize the role of the board through terms, skills matrix, understanding what kind of representation you want at the table and some sort of mechanisms for keeping staff accountable. Let's assume that we get that right. What's the next growing pain that an organization might face?

I would call that an oversight board or a policy board. They're doing their due diligence. They're keeping their eye on their strategic planning functions and fiduciary responsibilities, the environmental scanning function. But the risk there is that the executive director or CEO is so competent that the board kind of over-relies on them. Or it can go into what would cause the ratifying phase where a lot of us call the rubber stamping and all of a sudden you're into a different dynamic where the board's kind of asleep at the switch.

How do we help a board move out of that challenge?

Well, that's probably where board training and board orientation become important, making sure that new board members come in that you're getting those fresh new perspectives of people coming on. And then rigorous evaluation of the executive director.

Is there something after the rubber stamp?

Well you can't stay rubber stamps, so something's gonna push you into a crisis and then you're often going right back into the super managing, then the trust is gone and that's where a lot of the power struggles happen because the board's in there micromanaging and the staff is going say "get out of the kitchen”.

You can't stay the same, but change is hard for people generally. So let's talk a little bit about those transitions and also some of what happens, some of the power problems that do happen.

Well, and this again is where I think some language helps it depersonalizes but people don't like giving up power on the whole. So you know, if you've got somebody that's sitting there as a board chair or an executive director and they're managing things, you know, sometimes you have to challenge that. But there are other things that start to happen. And one of the models that I found was what I called a fragmented power board. And that's one where you get different ideologies playing out or different worldviews and it happens on environmental boards and all kinds of different organizations that are having different views of their social justice agenda. And all of a sudden the meetings are stormy and people are politicking before meetings to get the coalitions on the side. And that's really dysfunctional.

What are some of the other models?

The other extreme would be the chair dominated. So you've got the charismatic or intimidating chair, no disagreements with the meeting. And they tend to appoint their friends. So when everybody comes on board, the poor executive director has no influence at all. And obviously that's a problem because presumably they're not gonna stick around. I see that organization getting stuck really quickly because they can't keep good staff.

And then we talked about the fragmented power boards. That's the one with the competing ideological and stormy meetings.

I feel like everyone has witnessed that at some point. And I also feel like that might, I don't know if that's hard. One of the more difficult ones, I feel like the chair dominated is also a very difficult scenario for staff.

I feel for staff in this one, it's really hard whether they can get an outside ally to do something or they can start bringing in a consultant to help. Or this is where we talked about getting terms and trying to bring in more formalization to get out of that highly personal charismatic founder off them. It's a really tough one for staff. If you can bring in an executive director who's really politically astute, I can start to navigate. Sometimes they can manage it.

What's next that we've done three out of five

We'll go to the other one that I really don't like is the powerless board. Totally aimless, everybody's floating around, nobody knows what their roles are and they're just drifting along. So you know, one person can come in and try and do something in that situation, but everybody turns to them and says, well, do you want to make that change? You do it.

Right. So this is almost the opposite of that centralized power, whether it's the ED or the board chair. This is like, there is no, it's completely decentralized and everyone's doing their own thing.

Yeah. Well, you know, that one's horrible. One person can come in and say, look, we're, we're going to do a new recruitment process. We're going to get some new board members here. We're going to do a good assessment of the executive director and make sure we've got strong empowered leadership and get them training if they need it. And you know, I think you can address that one with some group of people with that brings some energy and commitment and drive to it. So let me talk about my favourite ones, Cindy.

I was gonna say number five, go for it.

This is the one that we ended up calling the power-sharing board. This is where the board and staff share a really strong ideological commitment to the values of things like equality and democracy. Consensus building, you resolve conflict through dialogue. It's very adaptable. People come together instead of having too much formalization, you can have ad hoc committees. So if an issue comes up, a group of board members and staff get together and they mobilize to address the issue and then they come back collectively and they, you know, it's that wonderful healthy dynamic that still ensures the boards in its proper oversight role. But you're all working to accomplish the mission.

So how do we get there? I mean, I think most people would agree that that's what we're aspiring towards. Yeah. Easier said than done.

I think this is a commitment where you recommit maybe as annually board and staff come together and say, are we genuinely the kind of board that we want? Are we in alignment? Are we fulfilling our respective functions without overstepping into each others domains, depending on where we are in the life cycle. Do we have trust and are we committed? I think you have to select people with a commitment to power-sharing, you know that some people ideologically believe in it and some people don't. The research is also showing having more women on the board and more diversity on the board helps on this front.

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Resources from this Episode

The Good Partnership Guide


You may also find it helpful to review our conversation with Matt Fullbrook.

The Small Nonprofit is produced by Eloisa Jane Mariano