Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Impending Deterioration

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality,” is the arresting beginning of a short, quotable piece of wisdom from Max De Pree, the former CEO of Herman Miller, Inc.  (Google his string of memorable quotations and you'll have a short course in servant leadership.)

De Pree balanced that rare combination of God-honoring wisdom with business savvy. The board chair of a seminary, he was also named to Fortune magazine’s National Business Hall of Fame.

In his classic book, Leadership Is an Art (read my review), he writes that a financial analyst once asked him, “What is one of the most difficult things that you personally need to work on?”  De Pree’s answer: “The interception of entropy.”

He added, “One of the important things leaders need to learn is to recognize the signals of impending deterioration.”  He kept a list and observed that leaders, especially in large organizations, fail to see the signs of entropy, including: 1) a tendency toward superficiality; 2) no longer having time for celebration and ritual; 3) a growing feeling that rewards and goals are the same thing; 4) when people stop telling tribal stories or cannot understand them; and 5) when problem-makers outnumber problem-solvers.  His list was longer—but you get the idea.

De Pree’s thoughts on entropy are refreshingly unique in our leadership literature. I wonder if he was also thinking about boards when he wrote that chapter?

I mentioned this idea to a ministry CEO recently after he observed this condition in his boardroom. While he didn't quote De Pree or mention “entropy,” his comments could have been a sidebar in De Pree’s book.

I'm paraphrasing here but this CEO, a keen observer of his board culture, bullet-pointed the symptoms expressed by his board members:
   --“We're busy. Do we really need a board retreat to talk about the strategic plan?”
   --“Isn’t this good enough for nonprofit work?”
   --“We’re all successful business people. Why do we need board training?”

This CEO’s closing comment was poignant as he painted the picture. “To move my board to the next level of effectiveness,” he sighed, "will take a mighty shove!"

De Pree’s full quotation is worth memorizing. “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.”

I affirmed my CEO friend for reaching Phase One in his quest for a more effective and God-honoring board—defining reality.

QUESTION: What is your board’s reality? Entropy or excellence?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Two Tools for Improving Communication

In the last blog, we noted the ECFA 2012 Governance Survey conducted in August 2012, where board chairs shared the “single greatest need” of their ministries. Today, we’ll zero in on one theme mentioned frequently in the 625 responses from board members.
One board member wrote, “To be more informed between meetings. The board chair meets weekly with the CEO but does not communicate with board members.”

Here are two tools to address the communication challenge:

Tool #1: Reader or Listener?
Determine the communication style for each board member (and the CEO). Ask each board member whether he or she would prefer receiving information in written form or in audio form.  Readers comprehend more when information is delivered in written form. Listeners comprehend more when the communication is in audio form.

While segmenting board member communication preferences into these two categories may sound challenging, think what it could do if communication improved dramatically!
Written board reports will bless your readers. Audio reports (a simple audio recording of the material read by the CEO, then sent via email) will bless the listeners. Many of the telephone conference call services also offer recording options so your CEO can record a monthly “CEO Update” and then email the link to all the board members. You may prefer to also add video to your audio.

Tool #2: CEO’s 5/15 Monthly Report to the Board
I encourage CEOs to email or mail a monthly CEO Report to board members. Some boards prefer a report twice a month. Pat Clements, the president of Church Extension Plan, introduced me to the concept of the “5/15” report. It’s brilliant!

Using a standard monthly report template (which the executive assistant or VP prepares for the CEO), the CEO can then edit the report and add a story or ministry highlight—all in about 15 minutes.  The written report (with an attached audio file) can be emailed monthly and the board member will have a succinct, but informative CEO Update that can be read in just five minutes—hence the “5/15” report: 15 minutes to write and 5 minutes to read!

QUESTION: Has your board agreed on the template and standing topics that your CEO should report on each month (and the report frequency)?  If you have never talked about it, add this topic to the agenda for the next meeting—and perhaps bring a sample of your own customized “5/15” board report.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Board Chairs: Our Single Greatest Need


In the ECFA 2012 Governance Survey (with nearly 1,600 responses), CEOs, board members and board chairs shared the “single greatest need” of their ministries. Almost 200 board chairs answered the question (60 skipped it) and the responses were diverse. While other multiple-choice questions identified "fundraising" as the top need, “strategic” was a common theme in this question for board chairs. Here is a sampling of what they said:

The "Single Greatest Need" of Board Chairs:
• “Alignment of mission, vision and values.”
• “Getting results from committees in between board meetings."
• “Better utilizing all board members; playing to their strengths.”
• “Managing the appropriate level of communications to the board between meetings.”
• “Comprehending the implications of financial statements.”
• “Knowing the highest priorities for comprehensive governance and knowing we have completed our responsibilities with appropriate time, energy and resources.”
• “Keeping God's role primary and our thoughts and plans within God's plans.”
• “Rallying and encouraging our board members to attract donors.”
• “To recruit new international and female members.”
• “Motivating board members to move toward policy governance and strategic planning.  We are actively working on this.”

• “Staying focused on strategic goals and accountability.”
• “Independence from CEO.”
• “Succession planning.”
• “Maximizing the effectiveness of each board member.”
• “Patience.”
• “Keep heart right and dedication of time for the ministry.”
• “[Understanding] how other ministries effectively balance the board members' strengths with the need to be strategic and not tactical.”
• “For the staff, excluding the CEO, to view the board as a vital part of the ministry.”

• “Getting the CEO to be strategic.”
• “Getting the board to make difficult decision.”
• “Clarity of strategy.”

• “Wisdom to know how to keep the Board involved.”

• “Being strategic. Being discerning of God's will.”
• “Thinking outside of the box, but within the Spirit's intentions.”
• “Generous board members.”
• “A successor.”
• “Understanding best practices in governance.”
• “To hear and obey the voice of God.”
• “More experience and better understanding of governance.”
• “Help for nonperforming board members.”
• “Discernment in evaluating opportunities that come to us for expanding our mission.”

• “Online board training.”

• “How do I know I'm effective in my role as chair?”
• “Getting the CEO to pace himself.”
• “Time to hear from God.”
• “Knowing how I can best support and encourage the CEO.”
• “Developing the board and organization to continue vital ministry in the generation beyond the founder, who is in process of disengaging from the organization.”
• “Balancing ‘walking in faith’ with conservative fiduciary responsibility.”
• “Adapting ends policies and strategy to a changing environment.”
• “$”
• “To know what I should be most focused on other than simply running the meetings.”

QUESTION: At your next board meeting, ask each person (including the CEO) to write out and then share their answer to the question, “What is our board’s single greatest need?” Extra credit: What would your board chair say?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Keeping Up With the Joneses

The board member had a contagious smile and his positivity quotient was sky high. He was more engaged than most. My first impression: quality person.
At a coffee break near the end of a board training weekend, he buttonholed me before I could put the requisite Hazelnut-flavored creamer in my coffee.
“John, you’ve worked with lots of boards. So how good are we? I think we do our governance work well. But how do we compare with other nonprofit ministry boards of our scope and size?”

Like the suburban rat race family, it was important that his board, in governance terms, was keeping up with the Joneses. It’s a natural question—but it’s the wrong question.

A better question would address what David McKenna labels “the sacred trust” of board service.

Here are some questions I encourage boards to confront:
   • Are we stewarding our board roles as a “sacred trust” from God?
   • Are we spiritually discerning God’s direction for our ministry?
   • Are we holding each other accountable for Kingdom results?
   • Are we assessing the effectiveness and performance of every board member?
   • Are we supporting and evaluating our CEO’s performance against agreed-upon and spiritually discerned Annual S.M.A.R.T. Goals?

When I finally got my coffee creamer, I did answer his question.  “Actually, your board is doing many things well. My gut: you are in the top 10-20 percent of nonprofit boards. But—let me add this. You will be pleasantly surprised, even shocked, at how much, much better you could be with the addition of some strategic next steps in your governance work.  And those next steps will have a dramatic and God-honoring impact on your work and your relationships."

QUESTION: How about your board? How much better—how much more God-honoring—could you be if you focused not on the Joneses, but on God’s unique call for your important ministry?