Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Range of Normalcy: Where’s Your Board?


Recently in a board enrichment session, the CEO punctuated most topics with this question: “So, John, where is our board on the range of normalcy?”


I love that phrase—“the range of normalcy.”

Today I googled it and found more ammo for future enrichment sessions. Here are two definitions and more commentary:

“Normalcy: being within certain limits that define the range of normal functioning”
• A related word: “Averageness: the state of being that is average; indicates normality but with connotations of mediocrity”

“Normalcy: expectedness as a consequence of being usual or regular or common”
• A related word: “Expectedness: ordinariness as a consequence of being expected and not surprising”

Three Thoughts:

#1. “Normal” Might Be a Low Bar. I certainly understand the desire for a board’s work to fall somewhere within the “range of normalcy.” Yet, if normalcy becomes averageness—and that carries a whiff of mediocrity—then normal could be a very low standard.  

Example: In the ECFA 3rd Annual Nonprofit Governance Survey, just under 31% of board members said “Yes” or “Probably Yes” that their boards were well prepared to name their next CEO.  If you landed on the “normal side” with the other 69%, that’s not a good thing!  The survey revealed that the majority of boards do NOT have an effective succession plan in place. It’s normal, but not wise.

#2. Watch for Signs of Mediocrity. Several years ago, a board member cornered me at every meal and coffee break at a board retreat. His comment/question: “I think we’re a pretty good board. But how would you evaluate us?”

He was fishing for compliments—and I resisted.  Finally, at the last snack break I told him. “You are a pretty good board. Maybe in the top ten percent of all ministry boards—but this will shock you—you could be even more effective as a board. And if you’re diligent about moving forward, the improvements will surprise you. Don’t rest on your laurels. You’re not there yet.”

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and the Social Sectors, adds this: “The moment you think of yourself as great, your slide toward mediocrity will have already begun.”

#3. Know the Difference Between Human Standards and Heaven’s Standards. You already understand my third point and if you’re read the powerful book, The Choice: The Christ-Centered Pursuit of Kingdom Outcomes, you know that our board work is measured by eternal metrics, not earthly metrics.

So…yes, it’s good to know the “range of normalcy,” but I really love the standard used by Holy Trinity Brompton, the London church that launched the Alpha course. Nicky Gumbel, Holy Trinity’s vicar, says they
“aim for perfection
but settle for excellence.”


QUESTION: How does your board measure its work and effectiveness?

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

More Annoying Boardroom Habits: Part 2 of 2

In Part 1 of 2, we mentioned several annoying boardroom habits—from the list in the convicting book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: Discover the 20 Workplace Habits You Need to Break, by Marshall Goldsmith with Mark Reiter.

Here are several more:
#9. Withholding information: The refusal to share information in order to maintain an advantage over others.
#12. Making excuses: The need to reposition our annoying behavior as a permanent fixture so people excuse us for it.
#14. Playing favorites.
#16. Not listening: The most passive-aggressive form of disrespect for colleagues.
#18. Punishing the messenger.
#20. An excessive need to be “me”: Exalting our faults as virtues simply because they’re who we are.

There are another 10—equally convicting for some of us.  But here’s the good news: Goldsmith says that these faults are simple to correct. Yet there’s bad news:
“The higher you go [in your career],
the more your problems are behavioral.”


If you’re gutsy enough to read this, you will not get to page 223 unscathed. If you read with a pen, like I do, you’ll have few unmarked pages. As a bonus along the way, the leadership wisdom oozes out:

--Why not listening sends an “Armada of Negative Messages” (page 86) and three things all good listeners do (page 147). Goldsmith says “80 percent of our success in learning from other people is based upon how well we listen.”

--One big reminder about people styles: “You are not managing you” (page 208).

--Why the most successful CEOs and senior leaders often have the best personal assistants (page 196).

--Why people’s common sense gets fuzzy and opaque—when you’re talking about interpersonal behavior, and why leaders often choose the wrong thing to fix (the easy one, not the glaring one). See Goldsmith’s seven rules on the change process, including “Rule 1: You Might Not Have a Disease That Behavioral Change Can Cure” (chapter 13).

--Why you must say “Thank You” when receiving requested feedback—and then stop. Say no more. Nada! (Chapter 11: Following Up and Chapter 12: Practicing Feedforward)

As a Christ-follower, I have one caveat to the book. There is a spiritual dimension missing, as is common in many business/leadership books. For the Christian, behavioral change is a mandate, but we’re not dependent on only bootstrap discipline and frank feedback. Made in the image of God, we can understand and implement real change only from a theological, biblical worldview. It’s not either/or, it’s both. (If I could thoughtfully integrate the practicality of this book with the deep spiritual context of some of my favorite business books, then, wow, that would be the perfect balance.)

Two additional notes: First, Chapter 12, Special Challenges for People in Charge, encourages leaders to write a document: “Memo to Staff: How to Handle Me.” If written with humility and transparency, it’s a brilliant, brilliant tool.
Perhaps—if done well—your CEO and board chair
could trade memos with each other.

Second, the appendix features a “Global Leadership Inventory” that can be used as a 360-feedback assessment. Respondents are asked to rate their leaders on a five-point scale from Highly Satisfied to Highly Dissatisfied. (Example: #44: “Asks people what he/she can do to improve.”) This is worth the price of the book.

QUESTION: How well does your board leverage the strengths of board members—while not putting their heads in the sand when annoying habits disrupt the governance process?



Wednesday, June 24, 2015

More Annoying Boardroom Habits: Part 1 of 2

Good news: a client gave me a terrific book.  

Bad news: a client gave me this book!
   • What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: Discover the 20 Workplace Habits You Need to Break, by Marshall Goldsmith with Mark Reiter (read my review)

And wow…this is one powerful, convicting book. Bestselling author Marshall Goldsmith says there are 20 workplace habits you need to break. He quotes Peter Drucker:
“We spend a lot of time teaching leaders what to do.
We don’t spend enough time teaching leaders what to stop. Half the leaders I have met don’t need to learn what to do.
They need to learn what to stop.”

Goldsmith agrees and then asks, “When was the last retreat or training session you attended that was titled, Stupid Things Our Top People Do That We Need to Stop Doing Now?

Mega-Warning!  The author—called the World’s #1 Leadership Thinker (pretty good branding)—says the problem for leaders is “not deep-seated neuroses that require years of therapy or tons of medication to erase. More often than not, they are simple behavioral tics—bad habits that we repeat dozens of times a day in the workplace—which can be cured by (a) pointing them out, (b) showing the havoc they cause among the people surrounding us, and (c) demonstrating that with a slight behavioral tweak we can achieve a much more appealing effect.”

Perceptively, Goldsmith identifies co-workers, bosses, volunteers and board members you know: “people who do one annoying thing repeatedly on the job—and don’t realize that this small flaw may sabotage their otherwise golden career.  And, worse, they do not realize that (a) it’s happening and (b) they can fix it.” 

(Okay—admit it. You’re thinking of a board member colleague right now!)

But here’s his asteroid-size attention-getter: smart, successful people are pitifully blind to their own tics. (If you agree, then insert your own Big Gulp here.)

The author says that the faulty behavior that messes up the workplace, the boardroom (and your home) is not due to flaws of skill, intelligence or personality. “What we’re dealing with here are challenges in interpersonal behavior, often leadership behavior.
They are the egregious everyday annoyances that make your workplace [and boardroom] substantially more noxious than it needs to be.  
They don’t happen in a vacuum. They are transactional flaws performed by one person against others.”

The 20 Workplace Habits You Need to Break include:
#1. Winning too much.
#2. Adding too much value: The overwhelming desire to add our two cents to every discussion.
#3. Passing judgment.
#5. Starting with “No,” But,” or “However.” The overuse of these negative qualifiers which secretly says to everyone, “I’m right. You’re wrong.”

There are more—and we’ll mention several in Part 2 of 2.

For today, though, here are two questions:
• What is the protocol in your boardroom for addressing these issues?
• What is your plan for addressing your own annoying habits? (Reminder: we’re blind to our own blindness.)

Psalm 139:23-24 (The Message) is helpful:
"Investigate my life, O God,
    find out everything about me;
Cross-examine and test me,
    get a clear picture of what I’m about;
See for yourself whether I’ve done anything wrong—
    then guide me on the road to eternal life." 

QUESTION: Do you have a board colleague you trust enough to ask, “What are some of my annoying boardroom habits?”

Friday, June 19, 2015

Boardroom Body Language


Here’s some empathy today for all the board chairs and CEOs who pray and prepare for effective board meetings—and sometimes drive home discouraged. Board members tell me they experience some or all of the following irritants in most meetings:


Unintentional Lack of Eye Contact. Sometimes, the room layout prevents eye contact with every board member—which impedes effective communication. (Long, narrow conference tables rarely facilitate robust conversations. Unless the table is named after a major donor, this has an easy fix—change rooms or change tables.)

Intentional Lack of Eye Contact. I say “intentional” because when a board member prioritizes his or her iPhone over his or her colleagues, it divides the room into two groups: 1) “We need a no device rule!” or 2) “Welcome to the 21st Century, Henrietta! Get over it!”

Folded Arms and Closed Heart. The oft-quoted research says that 93 percent of our communication is non-verbal. So when your favorite curmudgeon (the one that’s occupied the same chair location for 27 years) crosses his arms, whispers his patented “Harrumph!” and tunes out of the discussion—his non-verbal “no vote” poisons the discussion even before the vote is called for.

The answer to these under-the-table conflicts? Talk about it. 

You don’t need a committee. You don’t need to publish the 10 Commandments of Boardroom Protocol, but you can agree on the preferred culture you’d appreciate in your meetings. When you’re recruiting new board members (similar to recruiting staff), you’ll want to know—up front—if the candidate is in alignment with your culture. To do that, your culture needs to be crystal clear.

Usually, you don’t need to elevate irritants to the Matthew 18 level—but the standard is still a good one. Peacemaker® Ministries, an ECFA-accredited member, has a helpful “4 G” approach to conflict resolution. The first is “Glorify God.”  The second “G” is “Get the log out of your own eye.”

They add: “One of the most challenging principles of peacemaking is set forth in Matthew 7:5, where Jesus says, ‘You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.’

“There are generally two kinds of ‘logs’ you need to look for when dealing with conflict. First, you need to ask whether you have had a critical, negative, or overly sensitive attitude that has led to unnecessary conflict. One of the best ways to do this is to spend some time meditating on Philippians 4:2-9, which describes the kind of attitude Christians should have even when they are involved in a conflict.”

Suggestion: Visit Peacemaker® Ministries for all four “G’s” and share these at your next board meeting. May God bless your work, your words and your non-verbal body language!

QUESTION: When is the last time you’ve talked about boardroom protocol and culture with your board?

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Fist Fights Over Mission Statements!


Recently a CEO asked me to resolve a verbal fist fight over the ministry’s mission statement. In their strategic planning process, some members of the management team voiced a strong difference of opinions. I assured this in-the-trenches leader that this was a good thing! 

Patrick Lencioni has noted that the reason most meetings (including board meetings, I’ll add) are so boring is because there is not enough conflict. For more on this, read his chapter, “The Centrality of Great Meetings” in The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business. Lencioni calls bad meetings “the birthplace of unhealthy organizations.”

But back to the question about mission statements. I encouraged this CEO to evaluate the oomph and the caliber of the mission statement several ways:

• At least annually, when the board assesses organizational effectiveness and ministry results, does the mission statement give guidance for evaluating the organization’s trajectory? What ministry results should be measured? If the mission statement is too lofty, it serves no one. (However, vision statements—what an organization strives to be—are often lofty.) Ultimately, the board, not the management team, must land on a mission statement.

• As Tami Heim, president and CEO of Christian Leadership Alliance asked recently—does the mission engage you emotionally? She writes:

“In a 2013 interview I conducted with Wess Stafford, former CEO of Compassion International, we talked about Compassion’s mission. Wess explained,
‘When you share your mission and it doesn’t move you to tears in the first 90 seconds, you need to get out of the way. You need to resign. Yes resign, so the organization can find a leader who has a passion worthy of the call.’”


First, of course, you need a board-affirmed mission statement that grabs you by the throat. When sorted out through a robust spiritual discernment process, the mission statements of Christ-centered organizations often ooze with a sense of the Holy!

Bottom line: we waste a lot of staff time and board time on meaningless strategic planning busy work. But—reshaping the mission statement, if needed, is a high priority endeavor. If you don’t get it right, you’ll never have high commitment on anything else. 

QUESTION: Does your ministry’s mission statement guide the core decisions of your board? Do all board members know the mission statement by memory?

Friday, May 29, 2015

Sorry! There Is No ONE Thing!

Warning! Beware of board members, CEOs, consultants, self-proclaimed governance experts (or any warm body clutching Robert’s Rules of Order) who would pontificate, “There is just ONE key to effective governance.”

Sorry. There is no ONE thing. 

• 3 Hats. There are at least three important hats every board member wears—not one. More info at: ECFA Governance Toolbox Series No. 2: Balancing Board Roles: Understanding the 3 Hats: Governance, Volunteer, Participant.

• 5 Questions. Peter Drucker says there are at least five questions that boards must address, including: “Who is our customer?” and “What does our customer value?” Read: The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization.

• 10 Responsibilities. BoardSource reminds us that there are 10 responsibilities of nonprofit boards, including the need to assess, monitor and strengthen programs and services.  Read: Ten Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards.

• 12 Best Practices. Former foundation executive Dave Coleman preaches that boards must focus on 12 key areas, not just one. His fifth essential: “Boards have an effective CEO/Board Chair partnership.” Read: Board Essentials—12 Best Practices of Nonprofit Boards. Plus! The helpful Christ-centered book, Best Practices for Effective Boards (Fairbanks, Gunter, and Cauchenour) also has 12 best practices, including: “Board members are outstanding examples of giving regularly and sacrificially to the church, college, or organization they serve.”

• 14 Board Questions. Prolific governance author and guru, Ram Charan, eloquently convinced me that there are 14 critical questions for boards, including my favorite, “Does our board really own the [organization’s] strategy?” Read: Owning Up: The 14 Questions Every Board Member Needs to Ask.

• 20 Buckets. While I see management positioned on a carefully balanced three-legged stool of Cause, Community, and Corporation—I believe a staff/board team must master 20 critical competencies. The “Board Bucket” is just one, but a critical one. Read: Mastering the Management Buckets: 20 Critical Competencies for Leading Your Business or Nonprofit

• 33 Principles. Really…there are more? Just this year, Independent Sector announced their list of 33 principles. The short version is available free as a two-page PDF.  The 86-page reference edition, Principles for Good Governance and Ethical Practice: A Guide for Charities and Foundations, is sold online. More info here.

• 85 Answers.  (We’re almost done!) BoardSource’s third edition of their board answer book now includes 85 questions and short answers. (The first edition was co-authored by Ted Engstrom and Bob Andringa.) This helpful guide has seven major categories, 85 topics, and 363 pages. If you’re looking for one of the big ideas in board service, Question 9 is a good place to start: “How does the board avoid the extremes of ‘rubber stamping’ and micromanaging?” Read: The Nonprofit Board Answer Book: A Practical Guide for Board Members and Chief Executives.

My recommendation: the Bible has the first and the final say on the keys to effective governance. One Great Commission (the mission), nine fruits of the spirit (core values), 10 commandments (character), 66 books—and a lifetime of learning how to walk in wisdom. Psalm 119:105 (NIV): “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.” 

QUESTION: As a board, how should we discern the key essentials of effective Christ-centered governance? What’s the risk if we don’t have this discussion?

Friday, May 22, 2015

How Long (or Short) Should a Board Meeting Be?


When CEOs gather, a common question pops up from both rookie and experienced executives: “How long should our board meeting be?”


One size doesn’t fit all, of course. I usually answer with this Q & A directed to the 16th president of the United States: "Mr. Lincoln, how long do you think a man’s legs should be?" Lincoln responded: "Long enough to reach the ground."

Ditto board meeting length: long enough to accomplish your goals.

Some boards meet monthly over lunch. Others meet quarterly for a half-day. Another common pattern: two 24-hour meetings per year, plus two conference calls per year. One board I served met from Monday 2 p.m. to Tuesday 2 p.m., so board members could fly in on Monday morning and fly home on Tuesday afternoon—just one night away from home.

Local or regional organizations have different needs than national or international ministries. I have my druthers on meeting frequency and length and I tilt more toward the underlying values described in Jeffrey Sonnenfeld’s Harvard Business Review masterpiece, “What Makes Great Boards Great.”  

After studying board performance and CEO leadership for 25 years, Sonnenfeld’s conclusion is startling. “It’s not rules and regulations [or meeting length?]. It’s the way people work together,” says the author.

Sonnenfeld studied the common wisdom on effective governance (board size, age of board members, independence, active committees, etc.)—and discovering that these “pillars” made little difference in effectiveness, the author asked, “So if following good-governance regulatory recipes doesn’t produce good boards, what does?”

“The key isn’t structural, it’s social.”

Read the article (it’s convicting) and I’m guessing you’ll wonder if your entire board governance package is time-appropriate.  Some questions:
   • Has your board invested adequate time on the “social” side of building and enhancing relationships so, as Sonnenfeld suggests, your board practices a “virtuous cycle of respect, trust and candor?”
   • Are board meetings rushed—with no time for prayer, except the perfunctory opening and closing tip of the hat to Almighty God?
   • Are big issues (including possible conflicts of interest) identified on the agenda with appropriate time to hear from God and all board members?
   • Is there a spiritual discernment process in place for inviting new board members to join this holy circle?
   • Is serious time allocated for the CEO’s annual performance review?
   • Is thoughtful agenda time budgeted for the board’s annual self-assessment process?

Again, one size doesn’t fit all. Short meetings often short-circuit effective governance. Long board meetings may be long for all the wrong reasons. 

Noting “phone-book-size board reports,” Sonnenfeld asks, “What kind of CEO waits until the night before the board meeting to dump on the directors a phone-book-size report, that includes buried in a thicket of subclauses and footnotes, the news that earnings are off for the second consecutive quarter? Surely not a CEO who trusts his or her board. Yet this destructive, dangerous pattern happens all the time.”

Like I said: convicting. 

At your next meeting begin with Psalm 90:12, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (NIV)

QUESTION: Is it time to focus on governance objectives and outcomes—and then discern perhaps a new pattern for the frequency and length of your board meetings?