In this podcast episode, Carol Hamilton and Mary Hiland discuss the challenges and strategies of nonprofit executive directors working with their boards. They explore the importance of leaving a legacy and sharing knowledge, and how it inspired Carol to start her podcast, Mission Impact. Mary's book, "Love Your Board," is also discussed, focusing on the primary sources of trouble for executive directors when working with their boards. The conversation delves into the dimensions of capacity, connection, and culture within a board. They highlight the significance of building trust in board relationships and challenging assumptions in board recruitment. Additionally, they emphasize the need for emotional connection and individual check-ins with board members.
(00:08:52) Dimensions of Board Challenges
(00:15:11) Building Trust in Board Relationships
(00:21:39) Challenging Assumptions in Board Recruitment
(00:27:55) Board Member Engagement
Mary Hiland Ph.D. is a nonprofit governance expert and leadership development consultant dedicated to helping nonprofit leaders lead effectively. Mary has over forty years’ experience in the nonprofit sector – both as an executive and as a board member. She has been consulting and coaching nonprofit leaders for 20 years. Mary is a speaker, published author, researcher, and a business professor at her local community college. She is author of the #1 international best-seller: Love Your Board! The Executive Directors’ Guide to Discovering the Sources of Nonprofit Board Troubles and What to Do About Them (2021) And Mary is a contributing author to four other nonprofit leadership books. Mary is the founder and host of the podcast: Inspired Nonprofit Leadership
Hiland Consulting: https://www.hilandconsulting.org/
Inspired Nonprofit Leadership: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/inspired-nonprofit-leadership/id1446218521
Talk with Mary: talkwithmary.com
Alliance for Nonprofit Management: https://allianceonlinecommunity.org/
Welcome, Mary. Welcome to Mission Impact.
Thank you very much, Carol. I'm delighted to be here.
what drew you to the work that you do, what motivates you, and what would you describe as your why? I know you came onto the podcast a little while ago. Maybe it was I don't even know, maybe even a year or two ago now. So I'm guessing that that's why it keeps evolving. I'm curious for you, what is it now as you're thinking about your career that really keeps you motivated to stay engaged?
It's a really good question. For now, I'm glad you asked me what's changed, because of course, we get into nonprofit work because we want to make a difference. And I started in the service profession, but then, now as a consultant, my reason is about helping nonprofit executive directors and other nonprofit leaders be effective and not burn out. But I would say more recently, as I'm getting older and older, as we all are, I've had more of the thought of leaving a legacy. I've been consulting now for 20 years, and I've just learned so much that I think I look at my work with the idea of how can I share what I've learned over all these years? Because I don't want to disappear and not have shared as much as I possibly can about what works, what you can do. So you're not reinventing the wheel, especially for new executive leaders. I think that I care about making a difference in that way.
It's so interesting that you say that, because in some ways, thinking about people's legacy was part of what inspired me to do this podcast. Because I was at a nonprofit consulting, the Alliance for Nonprofit Management Conference, and I went to a panel where there were a number of people who know at that stage in their career where they were thinking about what's next after consulting, but thinking about that legacy. And I was in the process of moving into consulting. And so I was talking to lots of folks who were ahead of me, already established. So I was doing those one on one conversations, and I thought, why don't I start recording them and sharing them so that people beyond just me get the benefit of all of that wisdom? And as the podcast has progressed, I've branched out much beyond folks just towards the end of their career. But being able to capture and share the insights that we all gain by working with multiple organizations versus being inside just one or one movement or one field of work, I think is really valuable.
Yeah, that's a really good insight. The idea that you're exposed to more, you have new ways of thinking about things. Yes, I think that's definitely something. And, I have a podcast too, so that started off as not I don't think I was thinking so much about legacy, but I was thinking about sharing tips and strategies and bringing information. And so it's a great tool and it's lots of fun. And I've gotten to connect with lots of people like you, right?
I mean, it is so much fun to hear about different people's experiences and all the things that we have a chance to observe as we work with different organizations. And I think one of the things that's valuable from that is also being able to help organizations realize that oftentimes what they're experiencing is something that's pretty common, whether it's because of their stage of development as an organization. Where they are in the life cycle of organizations or the typical things that come up between executive directors and boards and being able to see those commonalities and be able to share with the group. What you're experiencing is totally normal. There's nothing particularly wrong with you. It just tends to happen when you're going through an XYZ transition or whatever it might be. And a couple of years ago, you wrote Love Your Board the Executive Director's Guide to Discovering the Sources of Nonprofit Board Troubles and What to Do About Them. And so I'm curious, from your point of view, what are some of the primary sources of trouble for executive directors when they're working with their boards?
Actually, the book talks about the three categories that all these troubles fall in. And I had been doing research and lots of experience, and it finally dawned on me that if you could pay attention to these three things, that you could figure out how to make a difference with whatever the challenges are you're having with your board. And the three things are capacity, connection and culture. And capacity is where my experiences, most executives start. I used to get these calls and I still do actually just come teach my board what their job is. They don't get their roles and responsibilities. This is something that all of us who are consulting in the sector hear. And even when I was an executive, I heard this all the time. So this is very common. This is, I think, the low hanging fruit. This is where people go first, thinking that there's something that people don't understand or they don't know. And in some cases that can be true. Capacity, all of these things have two dimensions. They have a process dimension and a people dimension. So maybe you don't have the right people on the board, or maybe the board's processes are just not good enough, or you don't have them at all. That can be a capacity issue. But then if that's not really making the difference for you, trying to intervene at that level, the next level is the connection level. And you don't have to start with capacity, but you need to think about connection. And connection is all about relationships. And we all know whenever you have a group coming together to do work in an organization together, whether it's a board or a work group, you have issues sometimes around the relationships. Are you an effective team coming together as a board, or are there issues there? Maybe it's not that you have conflict, but maybe you just don't have any connection. You're just not gelling as a group. You come together maybe every other month for a meeting, you take care of business and then you go home. That's not really a connection. So we know that effective boards are effective teams and there's a lot of implications about that in terms of the connection dimension of your board. And of course, then there's the culture dimension and this one is the hardest to change and shift, but it's really important to be aware of it. And I think a lot of people, when they have challenges with their board, they don't even go to the idea of, is this a cultural issue? Is this rooted in something we believe? Is it rooted in an assumption we're making as a group? Or are individual assumptions being proposed in such a way that they're dominating the conversation we're having? So those are the three things, and I use the metaphor of a tree with the capacity being the leaves and all of the different people and things and processes, and the connections being the branches and the trunk, and of course, the roots then being the culture of the board. So there are a lot of situations and examples, but I just found that there isn't a challenge that I hear that doesn't fit into one of those categories.
Yeah, and I love the visual of the tree and yeah, I've definitely been called in to organizations to try to deal with some of those things at the leafy level. Although there are some organizational theorists that say that oftentimes when something isn't going within a group, people will blame personalities will blame the individuals versus we're not clear about our goals, we're not clear about our roles. And so ensuring that the board understands what their role is, is certainly important, but not sufficient, as you're saying.
Right. Can you give me some? I mean, it can be early on, if you have a brand new board member and they just never got a good orientation. That's a real flaw in the sector, I think, is we don't have good board orientations, so we run into more problems right out the gate with that.
Right. So those orientations where it's an orientation not just to the organization, which I think people over index on, but it's also an orientation on what is the role, what are you stepping into, how do you need to be as a member of the board? And that can be a really preventative measure, so that instead of having to solve problems later, you're really making sure that people understand that. And it's probably not just a one time thing, right? It's continuing to remind people of the role of the board. What are some examples of those connections? What are some ways that executive directors can really help foster and cultivate those relationships between them and the board and then between the board members?
I think in the first case between them and the board, of course, this is really critical. And I think that you need to be having one on one conversations with each board member. You need to meet with each board member. Not just at the beginning when you're bringing them onto the board, but at least, and I think this is a minimum at least once a year, you and your board chair should be meeting with every board member, evaluating how it's going. What are you getting out of this, what you need?
There's so many things that you need to be asking and engaging people in to keep them engaged as a board member. So, I mean, your relationship with them is really critical in that regard. So meeting with the board chair can help that sort of evaluative experience. But the other thing then is I think you, as the executive on your own, should be meeting with each board member in person, one on one, maybe six months after you and the board chair have met for the same reason, to check in, to get to know them. And I would be on the phone with your board members every month. This is a relationship, and I think that executives, a couple of things, they don't know how much they can influence what the board is and what it becomes, and that it's okay to do it. And they also, I think, don't invest the time because they're busy. I mean, overwhelmingly busy. So if it's going okay, taking things for granted, those relationships can be a big risk. But I think people hold back. They aren't as intentional about building relationships with each and every board member as they could be. And there is a lot you can do as an executive to do that. What do you know personally about each board member?
What do they know about you? One thing I mentioned to executives is if this was the board that hired you, everybody on this board would know your resume, would know your background, would know about you. Right. Because they interviewed you, they read about you, they checked you out. As soon as that board starts to evolve and new board members come on, do they know anything about you the same way? Maybe a little bit. I don't think executives put their resumes in the board manuals. I don't think they bother to update because they don't think about it. And those are the kinds of things that are the meat of our relationships, getting to know each other anyway. I can go on and on and on about that, as you can see.
Yeah. I think there isn't enough attention paid even at the beginning of building that relationship. But it is too easy to think, especially if things seem to be going, to let it go, let it be on the back burner, but continuing to be in touch. I think in terms of employees, oftentimes folks are now talking about,, don't just do an exit interview, which is also a really useful thing to do with board members, but do a stay interview. you're having those conversations periodically all the way through the experience, so that you continue to get to know the person, continue to understand better how they want to contribute to the organization, help them understand your perspective and your background, all of those things. I think it is too easy with the crush of the to do list to let that slide. But then what ends up happening is that then there are problems that pop up, and you're having to solve a problem versus getting ahead of it and building that trust, which is ultimately what is needed.
And that takes a lot of work. And I think that even if there's no problems, you're not getting the best you can get. You're not getting the best performance. People are doing enough, maybe, to get by, but they're not as invested as they would be if the relationships were really close and important to them. You're going to spend time on what you value the most. And I think that executives, they need to put the board up there at a higher level in terms of what they value in the organization and not have it just be a must do or I've got to have this. You're going to get the benefit of it if you invest the time in it. I really believe that, and I see it. I see the difference for executives that have that.
Yeah. And you talk about meeting with people one on one. Obviously, that's been challenging. Or if you're serving a national organization where your board is, or an international organization where they're distributed by geography, oftentimes you can get the work done by doing it online via Zoom. But I think I was just recently working with a group, and their first meeting in person as a board after three years, and some of them had come onto the board and not met each other in person until this month. And what's missing, I think, for a volunteer is that part of the benefit of being part of a group like that is not only the discussions that happen in the formal meeting, but all those things that can happen in those informal times. Going out to dinner with your board members, having the coffee break that you don't get when it's all on zoom. And I mean, I'm a great proponent of working online because it can be very effective and efficient, and I think you need to make sure that you're integrating that social aspect as Much as you can.
Yes. You mentioned trust. And trust building is really a skill. It's something that years ago I took for granted until I did my doctoral research and I was interviewing board chairs and their executive directors and I was discovering what are the behaviors that people do to build trust in that relationship. And getting personal not inappropriately, but getting personal is really important to building trust in organizations. It's not that you've just got to keep everything professional and not talk about yourself or your interests or inquire about other people. Part of being intentional about building effective relationships is about being intentional about making time to get to know each other on a personal level. And that's a really critical thing to do to build trust. If you don't get into a relationship that involves some of that personal sharing and knowledge about each other and doing things based on that knowledge, you're not going to have as strong a trust as you could. It just isn't going to happen. And it makes a huge difference when it does.
Yeah, you're only getting part of that person, the one that's showing up with the virtual suit or whatever it might be.
That's a good way to put it. Yeah. That you're only getting part of them.
What are some of the things that those kinds of hidden things or you talked about beliefs or that really impact the culture of a board that executive directors can be more intentional about?
The ones I see most often have to do with, so there's the big one. One of the big ones which I know you're doing work around is the DEI issues, is what are the assumptions we make about each other based on the color of our skin, our backgrounds and those kinds of things. But beyond that, some that people may not think about as readily are assumptions about recruiting. I have people say we can't find the people we need and want and if they're trying to be diverse,, we just can't find people. These are assumptions.
And so when I've worked with people in the past and what I teach in my course about board recruitment success, how to get it is the very first thing you need to tackle is mindset and what you need to do. And I'm not sure everybody who takes the course or it's an online course actually does this work because it's a little woo woo and it really is not necessarily comfortable. But I'm just going to say that you have to do this and it isn't just about recruiting, it's about other things. And that is you've got to ask yourselves, what do I believe about this? What comes up for me when I think about recruiting new board members? What's coming up? How am I feeling? Am I comfortable? I mean, fundraising is a big one. I think we all know people aren't comfortable with that. But recruiting, it can be a little more subtle, where people say,, we've tried everybody, we just don't know anybody.
And this is one of the assumptions that really gets in the way, is that board members think they have to know people to recruit them, and that's not true. And so when you can just brainstorm and say, what are we all thinking? Put it up on an easel sheet on a board and then test it, look at it and say, is this true? Maybe it was true before, but is it true now? Is it always true? Where's the evidence? It's true. Take the time to go through and look at what you're thinking and see whether you could suspend it, just suspend it for a little while and say, what if it wasn't true? What would the other side of this statement be? What would the affirmation, if you will, say every day? And I tell them, you need to do this every day. Today I'm going to find the board members we need and want, or There are lots of people out there that would love to serve on our board, or we're going to find the person in this special community that's important to us because we want their perspective to change. The way you're thinking and the way you're talking about it, to yourselves, to each other, it makes a difference. I see it. It does. So I just have to take my word for it. I guess some people do.
Yeah. One of the things you said was people think that they have to know the person to be able to recruit them. Can you say a little bit more about that? And I think the flip side of that is that if they're relying completely on their own networks, it can become a very insular group. So I'm curious about absolutely the assertion that you can recruit people that aren't necessarily in your network yet.
You can. So the question to ask is, who would know? Who are the types of people or a profession, maybe that's related to your mission, an association, maybe even churches, who would know someone who cares about our mission? Where would we find people who care about our mission and be willing to go into those groups, call people, identify people, whether maybe there's some people who teach classes at a university that might know people who are related to the field of service you're in. It's about being willing to do the cold calling.
I even give clients scripts for this. If you don't know someone, you just introduce yourself and you talk about the mission because that's what you're looking for. You're looking for people who care about the mission, who might know someone who cares about the mission. And you ask them, and if they aren't the one, then you say, do you know someone? So it's that consistent networking being persistent, and it works. I tested this with ten nonprofits in the real world, not just people who took the online course. This was before I created the course. And every single one of those nonprofits found people that met the criteria. They were looking for it because they got past this fear of talking to people they didn't know, reaching out to people, and wanting to help. This isn't about you asking for something for yourself. This is about you asking for a cause in the community. And people are receptive to that. It's hard to get past it. It's not necessarily comfortable, but that's the challenge. And it can work. I know it works.
And I think being ready, willing to hear, no, not right now, but then not letting that be, oh, then this can't work. If I get one, no. Keep moving. You'll find the person. Yeah. I think another thing that I see organizations do because of that fear defaulting to is let's do a big blast email or notice. And if you ask everybody on your board, why did they get involved with this organization, chances are they were asked by somebody to step up.
That's right. And when you're talking about a mission, you're talking about an emotional connection. You want people on your board who are emotionally connected with your mission. Not intellectually connected. I mean, you can have both, but intellectual connection isn't going to have the stick to it-iveness that you need. Another issue I hear a lot about recently, because I'm asking about it, number one, is board member engagement. Executives are saying, I'm having trouble with board member engagement. And that's about the emotional glue.
And that goes back to what you were saying in terms of checking in with people one on one, not just having it be a group experience, getting to know what's going on with them. If they seem disengaged, what would they like to step into? Maybe they got asked to be on the wrong committee. I know in an organization that I've been a member of for a long time, people look at me and they're,, she's pretty organized. Let's ask her to organize this big event. Truth is, I hate organizing events. I am organized, but I hate organizing events. So let me use that skill somewhere else for some other cause. So really tapping into what people want to share. And then I think the other thing that just for volunteering in general, is to not assume that folks want to do whatever they do in their day job. They want to contribute to you.
I've been able to long before I was doing strategic planning consulting, I was on a committee in an organization that was doing the organization's strategic plan because I knew that was an interest. It wasn't something I was doing at work because of the point in my career, but I knew that I was interested in it and it gave me a way to start learning about that and develop that skill.
Right, yeah, I think that's really true. It is important for you to be aware of the skill sets you need and want on the board.
But for example, I have people say,, we need a CPA or we need an accountant because we need someone who can help oversee the finance part., number one, you don't need your accountant or your bookkeeper to be on your board. You may have staff with those skills. But the other thing is that people don't have to have that profession to be able to understand how to read a basic balance sheet or a financial statement. Maybe they can be a small business person or a moderate business person or there's a lot of people with those skills.
Just someone who's not afraid of numbers.
That's right. Because you don't have to have the person who's doing the work for your organization. You don't want them to be on your board. You just want someone who is knowledgeable in that area to be on your board. So you have a lot of options for what profession?
Actually, that can be really helpful. Because if you have that person who isn't in that profession, they might be able to actually do a better job of translating that important information to the rest of the board than someone who just has all that knowledge.
And has that curse of expertise.
Yeah. And they can go do a much deeper dive than the board as a whole needs in an area. Yeah.
So on each episode I ask the guest what permission slip would you give to nonprofit leaders? Or what would you invite them to consider to avoid being a martyr to the cause and as they work towards cultivating a healthier organizational culture? So what permission slip or invitation would you give?
Lately I've been thinking a lot about this. I think that I would give and I started this thinking when I was doing my book a couple of years ago. I think I would give executive directors permission to lead with their board more to think about being a co leader, to be a catalyst for the change they want to see on the board. I've built a consulting profession coming in and fulfilling that role. To some extent, the third party person can come in and be the catalyst for change and nudge the board. But I think executive directors can be that and I think that they often think,, the board's my boss. The board needs to have its own initiative and that would be ideal. But when that's not the case, or even when it is the case, it doesn't mean you can't step up and influence and be a catalyst for things to be different. So I would encourage executives to take permission to be more proactive with boards in what they need them to become and to help make that happen. And there are ways to do that without getting in trouble, right?
And really be in partnership. So where can people find you and be in touch?
Oh,, they can certainly find me at my website is highland consulting.org. That's Hiland Consulting.org. But you could email me at email@example.com. I am on LinkedIn. People can connect with me that way. And, of course, you can also listen to my podcast. We have episodes with Carol inspired nonprofit leadership. But that's the best way, really, would be if you want to talk to me directly, is to email me, Mary@highlandconsulting.org. Or you can go to talkwithmarry.com, if that's easier to remember, and that takes you to my calendar, and you can set up a time to chat.
Awesome. Thank you., we'll put all those links in the show notes so you can find them. And, Mary, thanks so much for coming on Mission Impact.
Oh, you are welcome. It was great to have this conversation with you, Carol. Thanks so much for having me. Bye.
In episode 15 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Mary Hiland discussed include:
- The pivotal executive director – board chair relationship.
- Why trust is so key and how to build it.
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.
I am Carol Hamilton, nonprofit consultant and podcast host. My passion is helping organizations cultivate healthy, inclusive cultures that live their values, fostering learning, creativity and results. Find me at Grace Social Sector Consulting and download free resources.
Grace Social Sector Consulting, LLC, owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of the Mission: Impact podcast, with all rights reserved, including right of publicity.