Saturday, January 22, 2011

What Would Gabby Do?

America is in a teaching moment. Out of the horrendous crime of the Tuscon shooting, endless lessons are being taught. One of those lessons speaks directly to the question of leadership. When the staff of Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford tried to put the office back together, they constantly asked, “What would Gabby do?” The question comes home for every CEO of Christ-centered organizations. If we were suddenly incapacitated, how would our staff respond? Have we groomed a second in command who can function in our absence? Have we delegated with confidence so that our direct reports can proceed without serious interruption? Have we prepared our team for crisis?

In my book Stewards of a Sacred Trust, I tell the story of preparing for a three-month sabbatical from the presidency. I groomed a senior vice-president to be chief executive in my absence. I delegated responsibilities to other vice-presidents and avoided second-guessing them. But, one month into the sabbatical, an internal controversy became a public crisis. My reverie in the desert was shattered by a panic call because my staff had no answer to the question, “What would David do?” In that instant, the sabbatical ended. Later, we called in a consultant to ask what went wrong. After careful study, he likened the situation a pilot flying an airplane. “You prepared your people for a routine flight,” he said, “But you gave them no training for an emergency landing.”

Ask yourself. Have you groomed someone to be CEO in your absence? Have you delegated with confidence to your executive team? Have you taught them how to handle crisis if you were out of the picture or unable to function? Out of tragedy, Gabby is our teacher.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Lame Ducks

In the field of Christian leadership, we need a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Lame Ducks (SPCLD). Having gone through three transitions of leadership as a lame duck, I think that I would qualify as a charter member. Lame ducks may be leaders who have retired, resigned or been relieved of their CEO position but continue until they have filled out their term or reached the date of their departure. Lame ducks may also be interim CEO’s who continue to serve after their successor has been announced.

John the Baptist is my favorite lame duck. He teaches us almost everything we need to know about “lame-duckism.” To begin, John held the #1 position until his successor came into view. Then, swallowing his pride, he had to accept the #2 position and even introduce the new #1. Yet, in that lesser role, John remained faithful and kept doing what he was called to do even though his followers left him for the new leader. It soon became obvious that he had to get out of the way. The reality of that fact caused him to express his doubts and wonder if his life had been worthwhile. Although reaffirmed by his successor, he still came to the end of his time not knowing how history would judge his leadership.

But wait. When Jesus went across the Jordan to the place where John did his baptism, the people testified, “Though John never performed a miraculous sign, everything he said about this man was true.” Consequently, “In that place many believed in Jesus.” (John 10:41-42). Never underestimate the power of a lame duck. Even though it walks with a limp, it can still fly.

The Tell-Tale Agenda

Call me a governance wonk. Who else reads the agenda of board meetings like a love letter? For most of us, a board meeting agenda is a necessary evil to keep us on time and on track. A deeper look at the agenda shows that it can be a keen instrument for executive leadership in advancing a policy-making board. Consider these questions:
  • Who writes your board agenda? Many board agendas are products of accumulated staff reports. It is a hodge-podge of information collected to woo and wow the board. If the agenda is an effective leadership instrument, however, it is a product of executive leadership coordinated with the board chair and nuanced by the members of the board itself.
  • What is the focus of your board agenda? The focus of the board agenda should not be on information. Prior mailings from the CEO and staff should be read in advance by board members so that only highlights from the reports or new information will take up meeting time. Like a laser beam, then, the focus of the agenda will be upon implementing existing policy and developing new policy as needed.
  • What is the rhythm for your board agenda? Think of your board agenda as the score for a symphony with the CEO as the composer and the board chair as the conductor. An opening sonata of devotions and the CEO report sets the theme and the tone for the meeting. While energy is high and attention is focused, important policy issues become the movements of the symphony with the rising sound of full discussion and the faster beat of final decision. Interludes between the movements give time for an executive session, a consent agenda, and a learning period for board development. A coda of benediction then closes the meeting with the members having heard the grand theme of the organizational mission played over and over again. And, don’t forget intermissions. Skillfully used, they can save the meeting.

Why is Sound Board Member Orientation often Overlooked?

Why don’t we pay attention to the orientation of new board members?

My first guess is that we usually recruit trustees from within the ranks of friends and associates who already know each other. Or, because we seek out high level leaders for our boards, we assume that orientation would be an insult because they already know so much about serving on nonprofit boards. These are fundamental errors.

Every board is unique in its by-laws, policies, practices internal dynamics, and expectations for its members. Without an orientation session in which vital aspects of board service are discussed, even the most astute new member will need several board meeting to decipher how the board works, how the members relate to each other, and what role he or she should play.

I confess that it took me a long time to learn the lesson. Finally, however, when I became the chair of a board, I worked with the president to organize a special two-hour orientation session with new trustees before their first meeting. A packet of information went out to them, including the by-laws, policy manual, board directory, and minutes for the board meetings in the past two years.

When the president and I met with the new trustee, we highlighted the distinctions of our history, theology and mission as well as explaining how the board performed and interacted. A good portion of the time was given to questions from the new trustee. Meaningful discussion followed. Later, we added the idea of assigning one of the senior trustees as a mentor for the new member in order to assume some follow-up to the orientation sessions.

What a difference it made! The new trustee quickly became engaged in the meetings and offered insights from their own leadership experience. Of course, orientation is not a cure-all. Without a long-term plan for board development, it is only a quick fix with the need for continuing growth in commitment, understanding, and the sense of meaningful participation as a member of a Christ-centered ministry.

How Does Your Board Member Orientation Rate?

If you want to test a board’s commitment to leadership development, start with its plans for the orientation program of new members. If past experience of consulting with boards of Christian ministries is any indication, orientation of new members is one of the dullest tools in our development kit. Few boards have formal programs for the orientation of new members. For the others, orientation is either hit-and-miss or non-existent. Let me give an extreme example from recent experience.

A friend received an invitation to join the board of directors of a Christ-centered ministry. She had been recruited by the executive director, introduced to the board chair, but knew only one of the other members. Before accepting, she asked my advice. Because of her outstanding credentials as a mature Christian leader who had won her credentials by excelling in the corporate world, I enthusiastically said, “Yes. What an opportunity for you and the board.”

After her first meeting, I asked if she would give me a confidential appraisal of the experience. As I expected, she was discrete and very gracious. But then I asked her the question, “Did you have an orientation session before your first meeting?” The answer came back, “No.” My mind went on alert. “Were you introduced to the board with biographical information or a formal introduction?” Again, the answer was, “No.” An edge of anger could probably be heard in my voice when I pressed on, “Were you invited to give witness to your faith and your calling to be a member of the board? By now, you know the answer. After the roll call, the chair simply said, “Welcome to the new members of our board” and then plunged into the agenda.

I asked one more question. “Were you introduced to the staff and the constituency by any public announcement?” Of course, the answer was still “No.”

Yes, I confess that I was angry, not just because the new member was neglected, but the board revealed its lack of commitment to the development of its members. A timely orientation session, a formal introduction, a personal testimony, and a public announcement are the starting points for a long-term plan of development for our board members. Without this start, I sincerely doubt that there will be any follow-up.