Healthy organizational culture highlights
In episode 62 of Mission: Impact, Carol Hamilton looks back with past guests to discuss:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome to Mission: Impact the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. My name is Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and strategic planning consultant.
A big part of not being a martyr to the cause is building organizations with healthy cultures. To round out the year of podcasts, I am going back to a number of interviews I did this year to pull out some gems on what it really takes to build a healthy organizational culture. There was so much great material to pull from. I am actually going to do this as a two-parter. This is part 1 and part 2 will come out in early January. I am taking a break at the end of the year – and hope you have a break coming up soon as well so I am releasing one episode this month instead of my normal two.
In part one, we are going to talk about what organizational culture actually is and who is responsible for it, why values are so essential to culture, and how courageous conversations and feedback are so critical to healthy cultures.
You will hear from episode 36 with Anne Hilb, episode 40 with Terrill Thompson & Monique Meadows; Episode 53 with Reva Patwardhan, episode 56 with Danielle Marshall; and episode 58 with Deneisha Thompson.
Let’s begin by defining what we mean by organizational culture. Edgar Schein first described the concept and his definition is: “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way you perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.” To me, the key in that definition is that culture is made up of shared basic assumptions – and over time these become invisible. But you definitely learn them when you are new and bump into them inadvertently and get schooled by those around you in the “way we do things around here.” Terrill describes their approach to culture.
Terrill Thompson: We define culture really broadly. ? The essence of it is what does it feel like to work there? . Every organization has a different call. The people who can most clearly see the culture are often the new folks, because once we're in it, it's like the fish in water that doesn't know they're in water. It's all around us all the time. Newer people who are coming into organizations can often tell you a little bit more about the culture. When we're looking at culture, we're really looking at it holistically, how are people behaving in the organization? How do they treat each other? What are the relationships like the level of trust? What do we do about birthdays or holidays, all of that? Even how we dress is part of culture. And so we're really taking a broad approach. It's really about the people. The people make up the culture.
Carol: As Terrill describes, culture is made up of things we can see and a lot we can’t – some of it may show up in your policies and procedures. Even more will be invisible. A lot of leaders have been wanting everyone back in the office saying that will create culture. But the truth is culture is there – whether you are in an office or fully remote or something in between. Culture is made up of all the small actions and behaviors of the group – whether you are meeting in the hallway or proverbial water cooler or on a Slack channel or Zoom room. How you care for and cultivate that culture is a different thing. There were plenty of unhealthy cultures in the before-times when working together in one space was the default – so the office does not create the culture, the people do. I appreciate How Deneisha calls out that culture is everyone’s job.
Deneisha Thompson: Culture is everyone's job, it's not just the HR person's job. It's not just the job of the supervisor. It's not just the DEI person's job. All of those things require all of us to be embodying the values as we have defined them. And to make sure that everyone is contributing to trying to have a more positive and healthy work culture.
Carol: So while leaders have an especially important part of creating and modeling the culture – whether they are doing so intentionally or not – everyone can contribute to making the culture healthier. Yet it may not be on people’s minds because as Monique points out, culture can be so invisible.
Monique Meadows: The other piece around talking about culture in general, because it's so invisible, folks can kind of dismiss its significance. Like how much it really impacts, how far you're getting along in your work and how you're able to really fulfill your mission. And so naming it and, and really identifying this is why it's so important.
Carol: Peter Drucker famously said culture eats strategy for lunch. So while I focus on strategy with organizations – I also assess their culture while I am working with them because the culture has to support and align to the strategy you are trying to enact. And it starts with looking at the good, bad and the ugly. Anne Hilb provides this warning about your organizational culture.
Anne Hilb: culture is dictated by the worst behavior we allow. The cultural component of that is as soon as something that's inappropriate happens, it's absolutely imperative to. Say we do not allow that here. There's not going to be tolerance for that. That being said, there's a very big component of how we handle harm in this culture?
Carol: This could be truly worst case scenario of sexual assault or harassment, racialized harassment or embezzlement. But it doesn't need to be so egregious. Do you have a team member who has followed through on responsibilities inconsistently? Have you been avoiding having a conversation with them about it? Do you excuse board members who do not show up at meetings? Do you allow one or two people to dominate the conversation? What is the worst behavior you are allowing? How might you address it?
Anne: Condemning the deed and not the person separating those things out. . The way that you handle a bad act versus a bad actor is also going to be something that's important and says a lot about your culture.
Carol: It is easy to get caught up in blame and blaming the person instead of addressing the behavior that is problematic. I certainly know that I have fallen into this trap too many times. I have also seen leaders want to avoid dealing 1 on 1 with an individual and having that tough conversation. Sometimes when a leader calls wanting team development or board development, once we get into the conversation what is really needed first is for the leader to have a brave conversation with an individual – whether on staff or board member. Team building will not address individual issues and may actually be detrimental to your overall morale. There is a place for team building and board development – but think about whether the issue you want to address is at the individual level or the group level. Deneisha describes the thing that got me interested in organization development in the first place – the cognitive dissonance that too often occurs between the organization’s mission and vision and how it treats the people involved in the organization. She also makes the good point that each organization is not operating in a vacuum – they are operating in the larger sector and the broader culture and systems.
Deneisha: The whole nonprofit system is broken and nonprofit organizations often find themselves perpetuating the same systems that they're trying to dismantle. One of the things I think is like the through line in that is culture. And if you have a nonprofit with this great mission, I usually work with direct service nonprofits and they wanna do these great things in communities, change indicators that are plaguing communities and really tackle long standing problems. You can't have a love for a community, but then internally. Don't treat each other well, internally have a toxic culture, internally have an oppressive culture or one where communication and diversity and having tough conversations isn't valued.
Carol: As Deneisha points out, you can’t have a healthy organizational culture that doesn’t value inclusion, diversity and belonging. By definition, if you are not working on intentionally building a culture where those from historically marginalized communities feel a sense of belonging your culture is not healthy. You do not have a healthy organizational culture if it only works well for some people. What you value and how you embody those values is a key component of this. Danielle describes an exact conversation I have had with groups.
Danielle Marshall: What does respect mean at the organizational level? And what does respect mean for you Carol, versus how I view respect? Because that's where I think things get a little tricky. We use words, just assuming that everyone is behind the definition, they're seeing it in the same context, because again, we're minimizing right differences without digging into.
Carol: Beyond just naming what your values are as a group – spending time talking through what behaviors demonstrate those values is so important to know whether you are talking about the same thing when you say “respect” or “integrity” or “equity” How will I be able to see it and really know we are walking our talk? As Anne describes, this ‘walking the talk’ comes out in whether our values are just listed on the website but not lived – thus they are espoused values but not really alive in the organization.
Anne: If there's misunderstanding or miscommunication, we know that something in the organization has gone amiss. And that means that we're saying that we have these values, we have these espoused values and we're not practicing those values in action. And that's going to lead to conflict when that happens in a place where there's harm created with sexual violence, let's say a leader. Creates an instance of sexual harassment and they're covered by the firm's lawyer. And now the leader leaves or gets pushed out. But the firm's lawyer is still there, which is why I've had this incident happen many times. Then there's all this animosity towards the lawyer because he's doing his job folks feel like, well, why are they still here once that all comes to light? So then you have this schism in what the firm says they stand for, especially if they're an organization that says it supports a women's issue. How do you then look at smoothing over the lack of alignment in a way that you haven't technically broken policy, but you have broken the values or the espoused values of the organization. That's an instance where you're going to have to work with folks in a way that gives them voice. And those back to the foundation of what do we stand for? What's our mission and how do our policies, our processes and what we say we want to do line up.
Carol: The degree of lack of alignment that Anne describes can lead to more extreme staff revolts and disillusionment. But it can also be in the little things as Terrill describes.
Terrill: The other thing is that oftentimes our practices and policies are written down that should define a culture, often contradict the culture. For example, we'll see policies that say everybody takes an hour for lunch, but then when we look around the office, everyone's sitting at their desks, cramming food in their face while they're typing emails. Culture often trumps everything else.
Carol: There is a lot of conversation about self care and setting boundaries at work these days, quiet quitting and the great resignation. But self care and setting boundaries – while important – put the onus on the individual to set these up for themselves. Culture writer Anne Helen Petersen describes what she calls ‘guardrails’ as a structured alternative to boundaries. She says, quote, “ I came up with a concept of boundaries vs. guardrails when I was trying to describe something new to protect against the runaway train of working all the time, that isn’t boundaries which has become so worn out as to effectively be meaningless.” So in the example Terrill offered, the organization has at least in policy created a guardrail of a lunch break. But if the leaders do not actively encourage this behavior or even more so – model taking a lunch break themselves – then those are just words on a page. What guardrails do you need to establish for your organization to promote everyone’s well being? And then as Deneisha points out – how you are going to hold yourself and other accountable?
Deneisha: When accountability doesn't happen, it hurts trust. But it's also a really hard thing to have that conversation. People are saying, this is my job and I can be responsible for this, but when things go wrong, Owning up to it and, and being able to recognize how, whatever you didn't do impacted your team is a really scary thing. As humans, we are defensive beings. We are not bred to be public about accountability. You may feel bad internally, but to actually come out and say, you know what? I screwed this up. I'm sorry. Or I had a bad day and I didn't show up. Those things are not valued. We actually have a very punitive approach to how we deal with people not doing what we need them to do. And that's very present in the nonprofit sector. While we talk about things like restorative justice, and we talk about things like healing and bringing people together, and building bridges. These are all terms we hear around the sector a lot. We don't really create mechanisms internally for people to feel safe to do that. And so what ends up happening is that we have lots of teams who are individuals. Just try to escape accountability, because I don't wanna be written on, I don't wanna a bad performance review. I don't want to be othered or, or to be rejected and feel like I don't belong. It is a. Difficult difficult thing to be accountable to your team. And so part of that is like, I tie that in with communication because what we wanna do is to normalize like imperfection. No, one's perfect. We all make mistakes. We can be transparent and it's not gonna happen overnight. But how do we build trust with each other? How do we start putting systems in place and taking baby steps towards normalizing the things that people are often running from really being able to declare when you're not ready for something or when you've hurt someone's feelings, being able to go beyond ‘I'm sorry.’ Because ‘I’m sorry’ doesn't solve everything. These are really important skills that need to be taught. You're not born with that. And if you don't practice it it's like anything, you lose the muscle for it. It's about consistently building in opportunities for teams to be vulnerable with each other.
Carol: How are you making it ok for people to be honest about it when they screw up? None of us are perfect. We all make mistakes. Do you have a CYA culture? Or one where mistakes are shared as learning opportunities? As Terrill says, trust is key to start being able to make shifts that build towards a more healthy culture. And as Monique points out there may also be past harm that needs to be addressed and worked through.
Terrill: We've got to have the trust to hold what comes up so that when the group is ready to actually hold the experience, then we can bring that in and start to make those shifts.
Monique: We really do see it in a lot of ways as healing work and, and really creating a space for folks where they are willing to take the risks with each other. But first it means acknowledging that there's been injury. And whether that injury. Intentional or unintentional it's there. . We've worked with some groups where they're ready to acknowledge that and release it. Like we even sometimes have done work activities that are like released rituals here's what we're seeing. We're constantly reflecting back to them so that they first don't feel like they're crazy, ? Like this is actually happening.
Carol: So in the best case scenario, you address an issue immediately as Anne described earlier. But sometimes it gets swept under the rug or ignored. It doesn’t mean the issue is no longer active in the system. You can address it and acknowledge it and work through it. And as we talked about boundaries being an individual solution to an organizational – and even wider cultural problem, It is easy to think when something isn't working, it is your fault – again with the driver to cover it up as Reva describes.
Reva Patwardhan: I've noticed that there are certain very prevalent, toxic dynamics in the nonprofit sector that when you are in the middle of that dynamic, when you're really a part of it, it can feel like a personal problem. . Something's going wrong. and in the organization, but because it feels like a personal problem, I treat it like a personal problem. If you imagine you're an ED and things aren't going right. Really feels like the thing that's not going right is me. My efforts to address it have failed. So what do I do? What you do in that situation is you hide it, you hide the problem. If you blame yourself for the problem and you haven't been able to adequately address it, you hide the problem. You're then unable to do anything about it. Some examples I've seen of this are Executives, who've gotten really good at hiding their overwhelm. It's just become this really normalized thing that their funders don't fund overhead. It's been like that for so long. A culture where overwhelmed and burnout are just normal. If you are overwhelmed or if you have a problem with being overwhelmed, that's a problem with you. And so let's hide that rather than actually trying to figure out how to do it.
Carol: Addressing issues openly instead of covering them up or trying to hide them is so important to a healthy culture. Deneisha describes the importance of having those brave conversations. She also gives a masterclass in the importance of feedback and how to provide effective feedback.
Deneisha: How do we create the environment to have really tough conversations, important conversations, brave conversations, so that we are respecting each other and sharing and allowing the brilliance of our diversity rise to the top. And then finally strategy. What does our strategic planning look like? Do we have a north star? Do we have a clear set of goals and targets that we're all working towards? You often have people who are really passionate about the mission, which then makes it hard. You can't say, leave your personal self at home. , just come to work that doesn't work in the nonprofit sector, whether you are working on issues related to poverty or education or homelessness, or, you know, especially with service orgs, their passions drive how they show up. Feedback should be happening constantly. We should not just be waiting until something goes wrong to have conversations around how we can do better. To supervisors, if someone is seeing something for the first time on the performance review, you have failed. You have plenty of opportunities between annual evaluations to share your feedback. It should not be in the form of criticism. You don't wanna be criticized; that does not feel good. What this should be is, how can we grow? How can we do better? There is an opportunity every single day to provide feedback. And you should be also saying as a supervisor, how can I support you? What do you need from me to be able to do these things? So feedback doesn't just go from the top down. It should also be able to go from the bottom up for a staffer to say, okay, I hear you. These are the things you'd like me to do, but here's the support that I need or the resources I need to get that done. So number one, feedback should be in a 360. Feedback isn't also just an outward thing. Sometimes feedback is listening, a key component of being able to give good feedback is to also listen and to hear and to synthesize that information and then to provide something back to the person that is actually actionable, that's meaningful.
Carol: And as Deneisha says earlier, just saying you are sorry is likely not enough to address harm. Anne describes all the parts of a good apology.
Anne: A good apology says, I'm sorry. I take responsibility for that and here's what I'm going to do going forward. And here's what I learned from it and how I'm gonna use this as a learning example.
Carol: Several years ago, Elizabeth Scott of Brighter Strategies did research on what organizations that have a healthy culture (based on an organizational assessment by Cooke and Lafferty of Human Synergistics International did differently from those with a less healthy culture. Today’s experts – Deneisha, Danielle, Terrill, Monique, Reva and Anne – highlighted several that came up in her research findings. The first is a feedback rich culture – and that is sharing specific positive feedback – celebrating the wins – and addressing the growing edges and having brave conversations. And another is the importance of valuing balancing self care and work-life balance – through those guardrails that Anne Helen Petersen describes.
What feedback do you need to provide team members? Board members? How are you asking for regular feedback? How are you modeling what you expect from your team members? Saying do as I say not as I do, does not cut it. Are you modeling healthy habits around self care? What conversations do you need to have as a team if how you work is driving you all to burn out? Do you admit to mistakes you make? Do you share those with your team and what you learned from them? Do they feel safe admitting to not being perfect? Is there a past harm that you need to make amends for? And use Anne’s model of a full apology. Is there a brave conversation you have been putting off? What support can you get to make it possible to have that conversation? Again – none of us are perfect. Values are always aspirational and we will inevitably fall short. But it is not a life sentence. You can pick yourself back up, dust yourself off, admit to the challenge, talk it through and set intentions for more fully living into your values moving forward.
Thank you for listening to this episode. You can find the links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. If you enjoyed it, please share it with a colleague or friend. We appreciate you helping us get the word out.
I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support.
And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
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.