In episode 51 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guest, Thomas Anderson discuss:
Dr. Thomas E. Anderson, II is the founder of Teaiiano Leadership Solutions. He has over 20 years of experience leading high-performance teams in faith-based non-profits. As a coach, consultant, and workshop facilitator, Thomas helps founders, leaders, and managers to navigate the multi-loop (…and often elusive) process of vision development and realization. In fact, he measures results by how much he helps clients to move forward with their vision for the future. Thomas is a recurring presenter at Regent University's Annual Research Roundtables and has published academic articles in the Journal of Practical Consulting and Coaching (JPCC). Above all, Thomas enjoys being a devoted husband to his wife, Jamie, and dedicated father to his daughters, Arianna and Azalia.
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Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Thomas Anderson. Thomas and I talk about how organizations can learn to see and listen, why more and more people are working with founders, and what foresight is and why it is important to organizations.
Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I am Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant.
Welcome Thomas. Welcome to mission impact.
Thomas Anderson: Thank you, Carol. It's nice to be here today, talking with you.
Carol: I like to start each conversation with what drew you to the work that you do? What would you describe as your why?
Thomas: That's a great question. I started this work just to basically help visionaries to, I used to say, to change the world, but it's really to help visionaries to impact the world or to improve the condition of the world that we live in.
Carol: And. As you just said, you're a coach and consultant that really works with folks too, you focus on vision development. Why would you say that vision is so important for whether it's an organization, a team, an individual.
Thomas: that's a good question. And I have to caveat it by telling you a little bit about the backstory of how I got into this work. So I had every intention of graduating from undergrad and just going right into it. Nine to five corporate jobs staying there retiring, but the more and more I talk to people who are around me and the more opportunities that were coming my way, they were really related to people would come to me with their ideas or they would come to me with some type of creative, something that they wanted to do. Made everyone else who gave them feedback on it say, okay, I don't know about this. You might be crazy. Those kinds of responses kept coming to them. And so when I was just open to just the fact that, okay, you want to do something new at the time? I graduated right after the dot com bust. I was in a sense , either forced to go back to school or to try something new. And I was at the time trying something new. And so I saw, I say all that to say, I saw how it motivated vision has a very motivating it's a very motivating phenomenon within itself.
Carol: I work a lot with folks in the nonprofit sector and it's usually someone. Has a vision of, of how the world might be better or how they could have impact or how they could serve people or a gap that they perceive. They step into that. Sometimes the vision is very clear for the founder and not necessarily for everyone that they pull along with them. So you recently did some research into vision development and then its realization. Can you tell me a little bit about that research and what were the, what were the questions that you were trying to answer?
Thomas: Yes. Yes. I'd be happy to. And you just brought up something that I thought about earlier. There's a trend going on and I can, I can break it down like this. And this is what my research has shown just on a cursory level. More new businesses are popping up and even more so since the pandemic has happened. The number of new business applications doubled between 2007 and 2022, and they actually spiked between 2020 and the end of 2021. They have level back off to that doubling, but when you couple that with the fact that corporate longevity has decreased from 67 years , companies used to last on average on the S and P 67 years in 1920 to 15 years. And in 2012 you had this trend that businesses are getting younger. And the chances of working with a founder are higher. And so I started to think, what does that say? Or a visionary leadership vision and visionary leadership. And so what I started to do was to reconceptualize there was a call in the research from a couple of scholars to reconceptualize visionary leadership. And I started to think about the trend of businesses actually getting younger. And I said, okay I need to jump in here. And so I started to ask two questions. The first one was, can an organization learn. And then the second is if so, how do organizations practice? Seeing together now I've had a couple of discussions around my book topic, or I should call it a manuscript at this point because we're still in the process of the proposals and so forth and so on. But I'm even revising that question to look at a topic that came up in one of the sessions: can an organization learn to hear or learn to use the senses. And so what that looks like, going back to my original question, is how organizations learn how to detect and anticipate the future in such a way that they can choose which future they want to pursue. And also on the same token, be nimble enough to make changes along the way.
Carol: Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by an organization seeing or an organization hearing.
Thomas: Still, when it comes to seeing, basically when we talk about vision, we all know that it's future oriented and so. A term for that is the preferred future. And so which future the organization prefers, but visioning itself, starts with the ability to see. And you mentioned the founder earlier in, and that really comes into play here because founders take a journey through what they can see to be the preferred. But there's a lot of information there. That lies outside of the realm of visioning. It lies in the foresight realm of future-thinking, just picking up on trends that are happening or doing some type of horizon scanning or thinking about scenarios that could play out. And so all of that comes into play when talking about organizations. Learn to see together, not just the founder learning to see, but everyone, at some point being invited into the process through their feedback or through a whole group collaborative session, just in bringing all of that wisdom into one room and saying, okay, based on that, what do we want our company to be in this.
Carol: Yeah. And you talked about foresight also. Can you say a little bit about what you mean by that? Sure.
Thomas: So foresight it's not really pie in the sky. Like sometimes vision enforced that can be treated that way, but foresight is basically seeing or detecting what's coming up in the next. So just to, I guess, make a juxtaposition between foresight and strategic foresight and strategic planning, right? Strategic planning looks, and you're an expert at strategic planning. So I need to get this right. Strategic planning looks in the near future, right up to maybe three or five years of foresight. Beyond that it can, it usually starts at five years, but can look up to 50 to a hundred years not to say that people can predict the future. But, you're just picking up on all of these trends that are going on emerging trends, things that could turn into something later, we just don't know. But there are things that would impact or could possibly derail that perfect picture of the future that many organizations and the founders do hold.
Carol: it's so interesting when you're talking about the near term and the longer term for nonprofits with the, with there being so much oftentimes just. Way more to do than can possibly get done. The visions tend to be huge, even when the resources and the organization are, are really small. And so I find even getting organizations to think about the next three years or the next five years can be challenging for them to just take the time. To step back, what are some ways that smaller organizations can tap into what other people are doing around foresight? So they don't have to start from scratch when thinking about those trends.
Thomas: Hmm, that's a good question. I was talking to the president of a smaller organization. It wasn't a nonprofit, but I think the lesson for me in this was that there are certain organizations that are mission driven or are concerned with their teams as wellbeing. And I think that's good. The point of commonality, but what she told me is that she gets together with our team monthly and each team member gets a chance to be the CEO. And so in that meeting she selects someone or they volunteer. And what the first task that they have is to tell, in their own words, what the vision is. And so that's a good way for the leader to not have to always take center stage in communicating it, but also for someone to come forth through someone else's boys and for the leader to also see where that person is and what they see and see the organization from their vantage point.
Carol: That's a great point. I often, when I'm doing strategic planning with organizations and in that initial phase where I'm talking to everybody, one of the questions I often ask. Why does your organization exist? What's the purpose to get everyone to, to describe that mission? They're probably not going to be able to recite the mission statement, but do they at core, have a common understanding of what the purpose of the organization is and, and have that be a checkpoint in the process so that if there, if it's like really all over the place, then that's something that the organization needs to deal with. Yeah. So in your research you were looking at how organizations can see and now maybe how organizations can hear or, or use the other sentences that we have. What were some of the findings that you, that came out of? The work that you did?
Thomas: Great question. So I, going through the process, came up with 11 operating principles that were the focus for each chapter. Around organizational vision development and realization. And so I talked a little bit about this earlier, but vision is more than what meets the eye it's using your senses. It's really detecting and, and I came up with a lot of synonyms that I placed in, in the book. But one phenomenon really stuck out to me was picking up on weak signals on the horizon. And these are signals. Can often be missed, but they can inform the direction of the vision, the, what I call the iteration of the vision. That brings me to a second concept where I think Brenda Zimmerman, who was a consultant and a futurist, and she worked in chaos and complexity theory. She recommended it. Good enough vision, not necessarily wordsmithing it to the point of beyond recognition. She's had to get a vision to the point where it's good enough and then use it to be tested and, over the course of its life cycle, it'll change.
Carol: I love that idea of a good enough. Again, when I'm working with organizations, I'm also trying to get them to what's a good enough strategic plan and to remind them that, yeah, you're not trying to predict the future and These aren't w once it's done, it's also not a tablet that came from on high, right. It’s something that you all created. And so when you need to, you can also update it. So just reminding people that there's flexibility, even when you want to set some intentions and some direction, but yeah, what's good enough.
Thomas: Yeah. And it changes from a wallflower vision and to a working document.
Carol: Absolutely. What were some of the other findings that came out? Yeah,
Thomas: Sure. So there are two trends that in my opinion are upending the traditional idea of visionary leadership and even vision development. And one of those we talked about just now is good enough vision or emergency. The other is shared vision. And in founder-led companies, I'm finding that shared visioning doesn't happen as much with employees at the start as, and I was surprised. I did one quick survey and the customers. So founders would actually. Go through the process of shared visioning with customers using design thinking. I know you're very familiar with that process more than they would with their employees. Once the company had grown. And I found that to be fascinating.
Carol: Well, yeah, I guess there is the focus there on going to the customer, but then if only a few people are involved in that conversation, then there's a big gap of folks who are in the day-to-day and yeah. For nonprofits. Oftentimes, the founder, the CEO, and the board get involved in those conversations and staff get left out of it. And I really encourage groups to include, as many people as is, really practically possible to get involved in those strategic conversations, because everyone has something to share and a perspective and that frontline, actually, implementing a program, actually making things happen is so important. When you bring it back up to that bigger picture vision,
Thomas: And I think we're at a point and I think we're at a pivotal moment in just organizational life. And considering visionary leadership and what it was contextualized for in the late eighties and nineties and where we were as a country at that time. I think we're at a moment where the call even on a generational level is for more people to be involved and that's, I'm picking up on corporations and nonprofits. I work with faith-based nonprofits and I don't really see a difference. People are lacking time and the budget to do certain things, but there is something that I did come across in the literature. It was a book on visionary leadership by Burton. And he actually when I was reading. And also looking through the work of Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner the leadership challenge. And I had a conversation with Jim Kouzes also. And what I found was there's a backstory, even to leaders coming up with a vision because they spend time talking. To people walking through the halls and Jim Kouzes just put it like this, leaders pick up on the vision. That's latent in the hearts of the people. Those are the visions that really end up working on when you start to generalize them for the entire organization.
Carol: that shared leadership is so important because in a nonprofit organization there isn't just one person making the decision, right. It's always a group effort. Whether it's all volunteer all everyone on the board needing to come together and, and have a common shared, shared vision , between board and staff and I think that's one of the things that always can trip people up if they've come from the for-profit side and especially with smaller organizations where they've been in charge and been able to do things the way they wanted to, whether that was best practice or not, they had that ability.
And so to step into the nonprofit sector, whether it's faith-based or. Where it's much more of a matrix it's much more of a collective so that building that sense of shared leadership and shared vision is, is just so important. What would you say are some of the challenges that leaders face when trying to implement their vision and implement, and then build a shared collective vision?
Thomas: Yeah, there are two challenges that immediately come to mind. One is the adoption, like having the vision to be adopted by a critical mass of stakeholders, whether they be employees managers donors just getting that vision adopted. And what, Carol, there is an example of that. I've been unpacking some of these examples and reading through them several times. And so with the March of dimes, I actually read through their history and included it in the manuscript. And so over a period of more than 80 years, their vision. And their mission has evolved several times. And so on its website, its structures, its history, for instance, around the four areas of an evolving vision. So the first iteration, what I call it, the first iteration was curing polio and the era was 1938 to 1955. When the VI, the vaccine for polio became available in 55, they entered into another iteration and they called it. Eradicating birth defects. You could also call it eradicating congenital disabilities that ran until about the mid seventies. And then they entered another one healthy pregnancies and they were ensuring at this time that babies were strong and that moms were healthy. This is random too. And it overlapped into the current era that they're in, where they're tackling a crisis of premature birds. And, and I think that I, as far as I can tell, that's where their focus has landed. And so we, we see things like that with the division becoming , moving in cycles instead of straight.
Carol: each of those are certainly related and they've stayed in the same realm. But the particular challenges or particular eras have been different. Yeah, I mean, oftentimes we'll ask Organizations for some organizations, their mission is going to be perpetual, like healthcare institutions, a hospital. Others would love to see themselves out of business. , a homeless shelter, a food bank if we didn't have needs for that, we'd be a better society, right? Like folks don't want to have to have. The services available. But they see the need and so they build organizations to fit those needs. But yeah. So, so visions can, can iterate in, in a variety of different fashions.
Thomas: And that's a great point. It reminded me of the challenge that the March of Dimes faced in that first shifting from that first iteration to the second, whether the loss of sponsorship and they had to. Find creative ways to tell their donors who had pretty much devoted themselves to the mission. And that shared mission of eradicating polio. Tell them there are other problems that we need to address here. And to your point about they would have gone out of business. Had they not iterated that.
Carol: Which could, which would have been a in, in some ways a valid choice, right. Except that they were, they looked around and there were other related things that they could, that they had the infrastructure to tackle.
Thomas: Jim Henslin, he wrote a textbook on sociology. He put it this way. He said they could have gone out of business, but the bureaucracy. Made them continue. And so they said, okay, we have to come up with something else because there are jobs that stayed there we built so much Goodwill in this brand. And so they had to continue.
Carol: Yeah. And sometimes I think we'll, we'll actually , caution organizations against that, that, that they're not. Certainly they want to be in the nonprofit sector. You want to have a well-run organization. You want it to be well-managed, be effective, all of those things. But if it becomes only about. Perpetuating the organization versus really staying on mission. That's where there can be a little bit of a gap, but certainly there's a multitude of challenges that they could have tackled and then what they chose to tackle. It made sense in terms of where they were and how they were set up.
Thomas: For sure
Carol: I'm curious, what are the phases of iteration or other examples of that vision iteration that you see?
Thomas: They are pretty much four phases. That first phase deals with foresight. Just really detecting what's going on in, in and around an existing organization. Or if it's a startup around the startup, in the external environment. The second is the one we know just sitting down, writing the vision, creating it or co-creating it. And there's a micro phase in between there where the vision is emerging. It's just organically in different quote-unquote containers. It could be through values. , it could be through culture. It can, it can emerge through several different things. The third phase is where stakeholders have a choice and this choice is often taken for granted for founders. They can accept them, its division or stakeholders can reject it. And we're seeing a lot of rejection of organizational vision right now in the great reshuffling. The great. What is it? What is the other name for it? Great. Resignation resignation. I think I've gravitated to reshuffling more, but yeah, the great shoveling, the great resignation where people are voting with their feet, they're rejecting the vision by leaving. And if organizations don't get to the point of the end of founders, especially in leaders, don't get to the point where they accept, okay. People can accept the vision or they can reject it. Then sometimes it becomes impossible. And if folks reject it, it's always impossible to get to this fourth phase where they, and I didn't come up with this term, but it's called vision integration. Dr. Jeffrey Coles, he came up with the term and he did a lot of the research where people do two things. They use the vision to make decisions in their everyday work life and they use it. The vision to guide their behaviors and their actions during the.
Carol: it's so interesting with the whole great reshuffle or whatnot. I think it comes down to, for certainly in the nonprofit sector. What I've observed is often there's been a real gap between the vision that the organization has for the change that they want to make in the world, but then a real misalignment with how they actually act internally, how they treat each other, the culture that they've built and I think it's especially acute when it is a mission-driven organization and people they essentially have higher standards for a group. And so they, when they, when they see that gap, they're much more likely , to, to walk away. And I, I think certainly in the nonprofit sector folks just have gotten to the point and, and then I think with. I don't know, it's pandemic, you, you reminded me that we're, that our, all of our time is finite. That things become more urgent than they might've been. You might've put up with it in the past where folks just aren't willing to as much now.
Thomas: that's a great point. While you were sharing that, I thought about when you, you talked about sometimes there's a disconnect people can vision mission. And I don't know if I said this previously, but it's often something that can be taken for granted with when it's in place, but if it's not in place you feel, or, or employees can feel that disconnection between Where the organization, what the organization does and where their job fits in. And that vision often gives everyone a common direction. And then it's a good launching pad just for even those team meetings weekly to say, this is where we're going. This is everybody's part in it. And , the check-ins, it gives focus and direction to a lot of the work.
Carol: I think that's a piece that people forget to do on a regular basis. And, and one of the values that I see in, in going through a strategic planning process, I mean, sometimes what will come out. The other end won't necessarily be super different than what folks saw going into it. But it's like a rechecking and a confirmation that folks are on the same page. I often get a lot of feedback, wow. That's really helpful to know that other people are feeling the same way I am or seeing it the same way I am that validation. So, I'll often say if you come up with a whole bunch of goals in your plan that are brand new, I actually will be curious about that. Like, why is there such a departure from what was before? And oftentimes it's much more of a through line and it's about conforming or reconfirming or reintegrating that.
Thomas: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
Carol: So at the end of each podcast episode, I played a game or I asked you one random icebreaker question. So I'm curious, what's your favorite family tradition?
Thomas: Oh, goodness. That is random. Wow. I love that question. Let's see my favorite family. I wouldn't have to say there are several, but if I have to pick one, it would be going to Hershey park. Yeah.
Carol: And how's that tradition originating and the same way.
Thomas: What am I, that's a good question too. I think we are just random, and that's why I say yeah, I'm going to stay with the randomness because I think we were random at times and we like to just experiment, try new things, go places. And I think we just looked it up and we saw that they had a chill child-friendly rides and attractions, and we said, okay, let's go.
Carol: And you love chocolate. Well, I am, I'm always in agreement with that one, for sure. So that's something you do on a regular basis or when we can, at least once a year.
Carol: Well, I'm not, I'm not a rollercoaster person, so I stay away from us at the museum at the park, but I was lucky that my daughter loved them and my younger sister also loved them. So it was a big treat that my younger sister, auntie, would take my daughter to the amusement park. And they got, they had a great time, left me, left me behind, best stay out of the way.
Thomas: I discovered, and this is funny now, but I discovered that. I had vertigo on one of the rides at Hershey park. So my wife is the roller coaster person
Carol: Yeah. There you go. I definitely have vertigo. Vertigo is a real thing. So what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you? What's emerging in your work? You talked about a manuscript.
Thomas: Yeah, I'm totally excited about that. So I'm working with beta readers right now to figure out what's missing what's resonating with them. And, and they're mostly scholars in visioning and organizational change so forth and so on. And so I'm hoping to have that type of yes, by the end of the year.
Carol: All right. Well, we'll look forward to it and let us know so we can let folks know when it moves to that next step. That'll be exciting. All right. Well, thank you so much. It was great having you on.
Thomas: Thank you for having me.
Carol: I was struck by Thomas’ example of the CEO who has each of her staff be CEO for their monthly meeting and to articulate to the team what the organizational vision is. It is a great way to check in and find out whether folks are in alignment and really understand where you are trying to go. I also appreciated Thomas’ description of the ‘good enough vision.’ So many organizations can get caught up in trying to get it perfect. Whether it is their vision statement, their mission statement, their strategic plan. Having the attitude of we need to get it ‘good enough’ and then get moving can really help keep the momentum going. And the importance of visions being a shared vision. If you are a founder and you are the only person who really gets your vision, it will be a lot harder to realize it. You will be more effective if you create the vision with the people you are working with – whether everyone is a volunteer or you have a staff. It needs to be the vision of the group, not just the founder.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Thomas, his full bio, the full transcript of our conversation, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes.
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. We want to hear from you! Take a minute to give us feedback or ask a question at missionimpactpodcast.com/feedback. Keep making an impact!
In Episode 42 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guest, Marla Bobowick discuss:
Marla Bobowick is an independent consultant based in Washington, DC, has served as a Senior Governance Consultant for BoardSource since 2008, and is also a Standards for Excellence® licensed consultant. She has more than 30 years of nonprofit experience and a history of creative problem solving. Specializing in nonprofit management and leadership, she has extensive experience with board governance, strategy, and publishing. She has worked with nonprofit organizations of all types and sizes, including regional healthcare and social service providers, educational institutions (independent schools and colleges and universities), family and other private foundations, and local and national offices of federated organizations and professional associations. Previously, Marla was Vice President of Products at BoardSource, where she oversaw publications, online products, and research. During her tenure at BoardSource, she was an active consultant and trainer, developed educational curriculum, managed regional capacity building projects, oversaw the global program, and coordinated the annual conference. While at BoardSource, Marla managed Leading with Intent: A National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices. She was also a member of the working group for The Source: Twelve Principles of Governance That Power Exceptional Boards (BoardSource © 2005). She managed “Governance Futures: New Perspectives on Nonprofit Governance,” a multiyear research project that culminated in publication of Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards (John Wiley & Sons © 2005). She is co-author of Assessing Board Performance: A Practical Guide for College, University, System, and Foundation Boards (Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges © 2018). Previously, Marla was an acquisitions editor at John Wiley & Sons, where she developed Wiley’s Nonprofit Law, Finance, and Management Series and the Association of Fundraising Professionals Fund Development Series. Marla holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Amherst College, a master’s degree in business administration and a certificate in nonprofit management from Case Western Reserve University. She is a past board chair of Maryland Nonprofits and a past board member Calvary Women’s Services.
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Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Marla Bobowick. Marla and I talk about the misconceptions that people have about nonprofit boards and governance, why shared leadership and governance is important to strive for, and why boards needs to shift their focus from hindsight to foresight Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I’m Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. On this podcast we explore how to make your organization more effective and innovative. We dig into how to build organizational cultures where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers. All for this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact.
Welcome Marla, welcome to the podcast.
Marla Bobowick: Thanks for inviting me. This'll be fun.
Carol: So I like to start by asking folks what drew you to the work that you do? What, what motivates you and what would you describe as your, why?
Marla: I fell in love with the nonprofit sector by accident. I love being involved with people who are absolutely passionate about what they do and believe in it and get to live and act and work their values and passions. And I wanted to be surrounded by people like that. And my passion is the nonprofit sector and making it work better, which is a little wonky, but that's what I do. Yeah. The most people, when they think of the nonprofit sector, I think they, they think of that direct, direct service or, or, working on the front lines, but there's so many layers and I've often felt that I was a couple layers removed from, from those frontline folks, but it's all important work.
Carol: Your work focuses on nonprofit board governance, which is obviously very key. What would you say is the most common misconception about nonprofit boards?
Marla: Of course, I always think there's more than one answer to questions like this, which is, I think it's two extremes. It's either the board thinks they have all the power or they think they have none of the power and same from the CEO executive director point of view. And so. Undoing that misconception because I really believe in a notion of shared leadership and a governance partnership is forcing people to challenge a lot of their implicit or explicit assumptions.
Carol: And where do you think those two extremes come from?
Marla: I think it's sometimes the language that, that we in the sector that state laws say that the board is responsible for the mission. Well, they can't do that by themselves. They do it with the community that they serve. They do it with professional staff who are on the front lines. So there's language that says the board is responsible for it. Sometimes unfortunately it's more egregious, I pay for it. Therefore I get to decide what our priorities are. And I think executives over underestimate they either manipulate or overestimate how much power they have because they control information. And so board members sometimes feel excluded or executives don't want to give them too much information because they'll get in the weeds. And that creates a tension that is counterproductive.
Carol: Yeah. And I've definitely always wondered about that aspect and, and been in organizations where I've seen those dynamics playing out where it seems like in the, the, the way that conventionally nonprofit governance. Is taught and the models that people are using currently, there is a lot of power in, in that executive director role of, especially around controlling information and what information is shared, what information isn't shared that, can, can lead to some not great outcomes. So I'm curious about what your perspective is on that.
Marla: So I feel like I walk into a lot of boardrooms and there's this hope. Assumption that there's a nice, neat line in the middle of the sand. That's a bright line that says on one side is what the CEO and the staff do. And on the other side is what the board does. And when I walk in and say, the reality is it's a fuzzy line. It moves sometimes depending on the circumstances of the organization, either as it grows and changes over time or on the size and shape and nature of the organization. And the goal is to know where the line should be and agree on it for your organization at the moment in time. No, when you cross over and know when it's time to go back to your respective sides and that underlying that is the. Every decision you can make the case that should really be borders should really be, may be management and to say, What's the sequence of the discussions and conversations and decision making, as opposed to thinking it's all one or all the other, and realizing that almost everything really has to be done in partnership or together in some way. And it's the process about how do you do that? That is the way through the mass to see where the line is and what to do on terms of what's management and what's board work,
Carol: Can you give an example of what you mean by that?
Marla: So strategic planning is a pretty classic one, which is, again, it depends, the board has a role in it. I think of the board as bookends. They should be involved in the front end, the back end, but board members and the board in particular, can't do strategic planning by themselves. They need information from the CEO. They need information from the field. They need information from the frontline staff, from constituents and stakeholders. And it's gotta be an inclusive process. And often the executive and the staff are the ones that filter and synthesize and frame that information for the board on a regular basis. And together talk about what's the priority, what's the shift, what are our goals and what matters most? And some of those things about what matters most are going to be based on client needs. Others are going to be based on organization. so the client needs in terms of which programs, where should we grow, where should we shrink? How do we rethink what we do? Some of them are going to be on Operational issues about size staffing technology. Inevitably, every strategic plan has to improve operational excellence or systems. And that's really the purview of the staff and the CEO. But when you get to fundamental questions about sort of, are we really a hunger organization thinking of a food bank or are we really a poverty or anti-poverty organization? Those are philosophical conversations that have to be had by everybody.
Carol: Yeah, I definitely see when I'm doing strategic planning, I want to see it as a partnership between board and staff, because each is bringing different information, different perspectives and to really have buy-in for what those final strategic goals are going to be. Staff need to be involved in those conversations. So what would you say is the key to having healthy governance?
Marla: You need magic. So I'm a big fan of alliteration as a recovering book editor, but I think there's a combination of, I used to say, it's just, you need good. You need clarity, real clarity, and sharpness of focus on what you're doing. You need great communication and information sharing. I always say this is a little of the Goldilocks approach, the right amount, not too much information, not too little and at the right time. And I started to add to that list. You need real curiosity to break out of old habits and maybe COVID has brought this to the fore, but I also think it is just part and parcel of words in particular need to be with. Ask good questions and then work together to find the answers and executives who have a lot of the answers, and sometimes think it's their job to give answers all the time. Need to be curious about what's behind board members, questions, interests, responses, as opposed to being defensive. And the last one I would add as context, which is what does the organization need now? And in the future, knowing where you've come from. And the, I did this somewhere else. And you hear that a lot from board members, and you'll hear that a lot from executive directors to say what fits the culture, what aligns with the organization's culture and purpose and mission. So that it makes sense for this organization now and going forward. And I always say the end going forward, because board work is often hindsight and I wish there was more foresight with it.
Carol: Can you say a little bit more about what you mean?
Marla: So board meetings often happen and you get lots of information and reports. That is all about what happened in the past. What happened last month, last quarter, last year, and not a lot about the, what you see coming up in the next 3, 6, 12, 18, 24 months. And so how do you use it? And that's, that's the reality of information sharing because there's nothing, there's no data on what's going to happen next, but how do you use the past to inform conversations about wow, we saw. But they need an X during the last six months. How do we pivot to make more of that available? What are we going to stop doing so that we can put more staff onto this program? And so I think it's that using the past to inform the present, as opposed to saying pat yourself on the back and say, Hey, we just did a great job on this, or, oh my God, we're having a panic. Because if something didn't work, we should beat ourselves up and slash the budget to say, let's really think about what. Coming ahead and short-term, and long-term.
Carol: Yeah, I think that's so important. Especially around the communications piece. Cause that could be so tricky of a kind, you want people to be informed. It's challenging to get people to read things ahead of time. So you end up with a lot of reports, but as you're saying, that's all looking backwards and so, how can. Boards, carve out the time to have some strategic conversations, get, sometimes I'll talk to folks about, what's a, what's a question that you can have a half an hour conversation about that isn't necessarily about making decisions today. But opening up so that you're thinking about possibilities for the future is right. None of us can predict the future, but by just having that discipline of trying to look ahead and notice name and notice trends, et cetera can, can help. And I think having some a couple of questions to frame that up really helps people have those conversations because otherwise it's like, okay, well, are we being strategic? We're supposed to be strategic. How are we doing?
Marla: One of the challenges is that people are so prone to asking, yes, no questions as opposed to open-ended questions. And there is a time when you need a yes, no. And up, down, vote on something. I think you learn more from the boards when you can ask them open-ended questions, which is what worked, what would work better? What would you do differently? What did we learn from this? Where there is no, yes, no answer. And you can then pull out the nuggets of information that can inform things. And so as opposed to saying, will you approve this or do you agree with this decision learning to ask open-ended questions creates more discussion. And I think the more board members are given a chance to have productive and constructive conversation and discourse in the boardroom and not be talked at or to. Is healthier. So one of the mantras, I think I can brag about board source on this podcast is that when we were aboard board source, our rule is staff. When we presented to the board you had five minutes of the hour-long agenda item. They had them on our board and came prepared, but they had the materials in advance. You framed the questions for discussion, and we gave the highlights and then it was a board discussion. And they would ask big questions and they would offer different points of view, but it wasn't. I gave the report for 20 minutes or half an hour that they already had read. And then ask them, do you agree with that?
Carol: Yeah, that's so important. And it's really like those almost as if the report is laying the groundwork or setting the stage for having that conversation rather than yeah. Being talked out and then going, oh, whoops. We ran out of time for any conversation about this. Yeah. So, what are some other things that you see get in the way of kind of, of good governance? You talked about those extremes of like either the board that you may have all the power and none of the power. What are some other things that get in the way of boards that are just being talked at by staff?
Marla: It’s people. Boards would be great if there was nobody on them, nobody staffing them. Right?
Carol: None of us, we have any work. If there weren't any people in home,
Marla: We get in our own way as execs and board members in terms of not listening in terms of having preconceived ideas in terms of. Presenting a defense or offense for something as opposed to a conversation. And so I think it's, and I think board members, on the one hand, there's this push for efficiency. We want to be efficient. So we're going to run through a bunch of conversations or meetings. Or we're going to try and cover so many things that then there's no time for conversations. So I feel like board members and execs put up their own barriers, they bring a lot of baggage or and preconceived ideas into their board work and their work together. That, to say, taking time out to pause And find a way to say what's how we should be as a board and spending time on board purpose and culture can overcome a lot of the usual frustrations that go around boards, but it takes time. And often people don't feel like they have time for what board, something many board members do. We'll say it is navel gazing. And many execs would say it's not going to make a difference. But taking time out to say, well, is this a good use of our time? What's the most important thing we talked about? What could we do differently at the next thing? I just came from a board meeting this weekend where we finally have turned around the board. We've restructured it. We've got new board members on and somebody complained about one of the agenda items. Like, all we do is talk about fundraising. So I said, what do you want to talk about next? And I think that was the first time that the board had ever been asked what's of interest to you. And I think that's a healthy conversation and let the board own some of it.
Carol: Yeah, I think so often when I talk to folks, the whole question of slowing down and taking a pause and stepping back and thinking about, well, why are we doing things the way we're doing them? Or, is this really serving us? Always comes up and then there is the pressure of, we just gotta get through this. We've got so many things on our agenda. Yeah, I, I, to me, when. When I was on board. And, and in charge of putting together the agenda, I was always fighting. Well, it was us fighting might be a strong word, but there was a struggle often between us having all these different things to talk about and then being saying, well, We're really not going to talk about any of them. If we just try to rush through it all we'll just end up having to come back to it anyway. So could we have fewer things on the agenda so that we could really dig into at least one of them?
Marla: Well, I think that's a silver lining for boards during the time of COVID, which is, many were meeting more often, less often, but they were all meeting differently than they used to. And I think it is forced. One of the most important conversations, which is what does the board need to talk about and why, and what do we not need to have as a board meeting on a board meeting agenda. So to hear a lot of reports that there's not a lot of conversation about is a waste of everyone's time. And yet it has value. I understand when you're in a board meeting, like people aren't thinking about the organization as board members on a day-to-day basis, and they want to know what's new and different, but finding a different way to convey that or a more engaging and interactive way to talk about what's happening at the organization so that when you are together with the board, with the average of whatever 15 people. You are using everyone's time to the highest value, which is what's. How can we add value to the organization and help the executive and help advance our mission? No. Be not a board, his book club. Let's just talk about what you did last month and how great it was, but you're not actually contributing anything of, of intellectual or strategic value.
Carol: So, what are some of the innovations that you've seen come out this past 18 months?
Marla: I have been surprised and shocked and pleased at being able to do some board assessment, evaluate self evaluation, work online with doing the typical online survey and then presenting the results, and creating it as a separate meeting. Whereas if we were always meeting in person, it was an all day retreat. There was a lot of drama and anxiety around, oh my God, what are we going to do per day? Is it worth it, but to kick off a conversation in an hour and a half or two at a zoom meeting and talk about it and then parlay it into full board discussion. So it's almost like deconstructing what were retreats? Definitely missed the in-person social networking that happens when board members are together. No one get this wrong, I'm all for meeting again in person. But I think the innovation of saying we can call an extra meeting for an hour and a half and use it as a listening to her, use it for a discussion that doesn't require action. Use it to dig into one topic. So I think that's the notion of focus. Out of it. I think there's just a lot. I think people have realized how much information you need and what's the best way to present it. Because I hear all the complaints and I haven't heard them lately. That board meetings are just a bunch of presentations. So when you work on zoom. You have to think about how much presentation, how many Hollywood squares can I see, how many, how much is too much PowerPoint. All of that is a test to be rethought. The strain honestly, though, is that it takes a lot more work to organize a meeting like that on zoom than to do it in person. It can take a lot. It can, it doesn't have to, but even as a consultant who does this all the time to plan and design interactive meetings, it takes more of a.
Carol: Yeah. I mean, it's been interesting to me where you talked about deconstructing the retreat. I've definitely seen the advantage of breaking up. I do a lot of strategic planning and break up those processes into a series of two hour or three hour meetings where you're really just doing one piece of it. You're starting out with that. Okay. So, I've, I've done all those conversations. I've done that assessment. I've got survey data, all of that. Let me share that with you. Let's make sure. But that's it that we're going to do today. We're not going to try to get to the very end in one day and have that marathon that people have had before. So I've really appreciated that, that focus that that can be brought.
Marla: I've done something similar with orientation and I did this before. COVID with an organization that is very small and. It's a national organization and people just can't afford to come together very often. And so a couple of years ago, we started a three-part session of orientation. One session about the state of the organization. One session about the work of the board in one session. Planning for the next year, board action planning that then feeds into organizational planning and budgeting. And we've been doing it in these three-part sessions now, I think for three or four years. And it really is like there, it compounds it, it gives people time to think about it. They tag it on to an existing board meeting, so they're not creating more stuff. It's worked really wonderfully and I've watched the board come along. And the conversation, even if the session, the content doesn't change much, the quality of the conversation has improved. And in the beginning they didn't talk a lot. And now there's much more back and forth. It's much less hearing me talk, but to have board member to board member conversation. So I think things like breaking things down have been, has been.
Carol: Yeah. And I'm even thinking, in terms of all those presentations what, what, might've all been written reports before, you could just record a brief, the, the staff or the, whatever the report is and have those go out beforehand. So you watch them while they're doing the dishes or listen to them while they're taking a walk, it doesn't have to all be written materials. So there's lots of different ways that you can deliver whatever information people need to have to have the conversation.
Marla: I'm trying to think of other innovations I've seen. And I think it just has to do with better reports. I've seen a, like little they're, more logistical and operational about better way board members are getting in the execs, I guess, are getting better at organizing board packets and materials and online handbooks and resources. And I think this is the nature of the pandemic, but I think it's a healthy thing. And I've seen other execs do this often when they're new, which is communication between board meetings. Assuming you're not meeting monthly, which I rarely recommend. But that, they're like, here's an update from the staff on what's happening on the ground because board members, especially during COVID and especially if you're doing frontline work, want to know what it’s like in the office or the quote office. What are you seeing? And so they don't have to be long emails, but a, like, here's three exciting things that happened this month. And yes, it takes some time from the exec to do that, but to be strategic about it and balance it between operational and strategic issues and need, and mission has, I think, helped some board members feel better connected. I've also seen some really savvy execs have coffee hour sort of, much more intentionally one-on-one with board members or an open house, like just call and ask questions, schedule time on a, like once a month basis for just whats. So people can ask questions because I think with all the uncertainty around, going back to work or direct service needs or increases or decreases in funding. It's just a way to ask questions without feeling like it's the formality of a full meal. Yeah, I love that.
Carol: There are lots of different ways to do that communication, that isn't all in the box of a board meeting, but what are the different ways that you can poke people in and not have it be onerous either on the board members part or on the staff part, but to keep those lines of communication open. So on each episode I'd like to play. A game where I ask one random icebreaker question. My question for you is what book have you read recently that you would recommend and why?
Marla: One of the things they did during the pandemic was a virtual book club with people I've been in book clubs with over the course of my life, and none of us are in the same city. So it's been a blast. My favorite book was Deacon King Kong by James McBride. I can see you smiling. Not everybody can do that on the podcast. So it is a historical novel, if you will. We'll about, I believe it was the sixties in New York city and it had the, the Italian mafia on the Irish cops and the black drug dealers. And The Bronx or Harlem or Brooklyn, I can't even remember, but it had the best characters.
Carol: Character names for sure.
Marla: Absolutely the best names. And so it was incredibly relevant to the world today and issues of social justice and community. And yeah, just a blast to read. He's a wonderful writer. And we had some fun conversations about it, we were joking about that. So if you haven't read the book, the burning question in our head was what was the cheese that was left in the basement by that was left for the community in the basement of the boiler room.
Carol: I do remember it now. I do remember it. Yeah, there was just so it set in, in a, in a housing project. I can't remember what borough of New York and just all the intersections of community and. These characters. Oh my goodness. Yeah. So Donald has great characters, but the story moves too. So yeah. I love that.
Marla: I want it to be a movie.
Carol: Yes. I think it would make a great movie. So what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you. What's emerging in the work that you're doing?
Marla: It was amazing in the middle of the pandemic. I worked on a think tank research project about the principles of trusteeship which I did with the association of governing boards of universities and colleges. It's always a mouthful to say that and it really focused on what are the principles of would that make a great board member? Not a great board because the board is made up of a bunch of people. And as I said earlier, one of the obstacles to governance is people. And so it was really fun and amazing to tap into the wisdom of a bunch of college and universities per professor presidents and foundation executives to say what they had seen and to do this in the middle of the pandemic. When you thought colleges didn't even know if they were going to be open that semester. Folks, hundreds of volunteers from AGB we're on focus groups. And so really walking away with this sort of, how do you speak to the individual? I think it has made me realize how important it is to say, it's not just what a good board should do, but it's like, what can you personally do and do better as a board member and. I feel like that's a mantra that comes out in conversation, but not as explicitly as this project brought it into focus. And so really helping people see what you are doing to help or get in the way of yourself or others. Be part of a great board.
Carol: Is there a report or some summary of findings for that?
Marla: It’s coming. There is a big purple book that we did that has nine principles. They fall into three big buckets. I was a PI. Now it's a mandola because that sounds far more sophisticated than a pie. It was at Thanksgiving when we came up with a pie that has an inner circle of three pieces, which is understood by the government. Think strategically and lead by example or lead with integrity. And so that is what you as an individual should do. And then each piece of that pie has components built within it that get at your role as a. As a fiduciary of the organization. So you've got to uphold that they get a, what role you play on the board as a member of a team. Like not everyone is the captain or the center or the goalie. I'm a soccer fan. And then there is the, what do you do outside of the board and board work? That you do as a volunteer. So when you have special expertise or you show up on campus for an event or whatever it is that you're doing, that is not board work, but you do because you love the organization or you're passionate, or because you're a board member, but you have something to add that is not a governance function. And I think so. Yes, it came out as a book that you can buy from AGB. There is an article that I wrote for trusteeship magazine that I believe is free to anyone on the AGB website, agb.org. And the title is what board members are you? So it's again, it's speaking to you. And then there's a whole bunch of stuff that AGB is rolling out, but it really was this process of self-reflection and trying to make it and put it in the language that is accessible and not jargon. And that isn't shaming people or giving them commandments, thou shall do this, but that's say, we know this is hard and we know it varies from organization to organization, but there are some fundamentals that we think everybody should be capable of doing, or you shouldn't be on the board.
Carol: Awesome. All right. Well, we'll look for that so that we can put a link in the show notes, so, awesome. Thank you so much. It was great having you in love to have this conversation.
Marla: Likewise, thanks for including me and keeping up the good governance work. All right. Thanks.
Carol: I appreciated Marla’s perspective on how the work of governance is not always crystal clear about whether an issue or decision is in the realm of strategy or management. Those are two categories that are somewhat arbitrary and there is a gray area between them. Clear communication and trust between the board and the executive director and senior leadership can go a long way to make it safe for each group to ask the questions it has, get the information it needs and feel supportive of each other instead of so wary about whether they are stepping on each other toes or getting in each other’s lanes. The models may make it look super distinctive but folks need to realize that sometimes it is not. I also appreciated the point that boards needs to spend more time looking forward than backward. Too often so much of board meetings is taken up with reports – updates on work done by committees, staff, task forces, etc. Instead of using the time that everyone is together to have a discussion about a key issue – whether it is one facing the organization today or one that folks see coming down the pike. As much as you can get reports to people in another format than shared verbally in a meeting – whether it is a written update, a short video or audio message – there are lots of options to consider.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Marla, the full transcript of our conversation, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. 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. If you enjoyed it, please share it with a colleague or friend. We appreciate you helping us get the word out. Until next time.
In the special 1-year anniversary episode of Mission: Impact, Carol Hamilton discussed the following:
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. I'm Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. This is an exciting episode for me. I've been podcasting now for a year. So this is my one-year pot of nursery, and it's been so much fun doing this podcast. I've had a lot of great guests, wonderful conversations, and have really appreciated everything that I've learned from everybody that I've spoken to. And I launched the podcast back in August of 2020, but actually started doing interviews for it. Even at the beginning of the pandemic, starting in March. And so this has really been a pandemic project, although I will continue. I intend to continue on after that. Hopefully there will be an after at some point But I certainly have learned a lot.
I've learned, heard a lot about how the pandemic has impacted how folks do their work, how they approach their work. And it certainly had a lot of impact on how I approach my work. The default before the pandemic for strategic planning was of course, to have some in-person event where you did the planning of one day retreat, a one and a half day retreat. Where you brought the key stakeholders together, got them all in a room and had a series of conversations that helped them make decisions about the future of the organization. Other parts of the process certainly have been done online though.
Video conference, focus groups, listening sessions, interviews over the phone, et cetera, but that main crux of the process where you bring together the planning group has always by default, been done in person.
And of course we had to shift that overnight to working online. Now I had a head start because I'd been doing online events since the early two thousands, I in fact organized my first virtual conference in 2004 and had been producing a number of different online experiences over the course of those years. And so it was pretty easy for me to switch up how we were going to do strategic planning, but what's been so interesting to me over the course of this period.
As I've done over 10 different processes with 10 different organizations is actually to see the benefit of doing it online, doing it in a, in a remote setting. And most folks think, well, how can you really make good decisions if you're not all in the same room? And the thing that I've really noticed is that when you do that intensive retreat oftentimes right, when you get to the point of making a decision. With the group, they have hit cognitive load. It's three o'clock in the afternoon, four o'clock in the afternoon. They've been thinking hard all day processing lots of different information brainstorming and they are worn out. And that is the point in the agenda often. When you need the group to make some important decisions.
In the virtual environment, there's no need to have that intensive long eight hour experience. You can take that eight hours or 10 hours, whatever amount of time you might've had at that retreat. Pace it over a number of sessions, two hours here, three hours here, and with a contained set of goals that you're trying to accomplish in each one. Then beginning each the next one with, this is what we did last time, and this is where we are in the process.
But what I've seen is that groups really benefit from having a little bit of time to do one piece of the process and then process that integrated, to think more about it. Be able to kind of mull over the conversations that they had to then bring all of those new, all of that thinking into the next session. With a little more pacing over the period of time, I find that groups are able to get further quicker. In some ways it takes a little bit longer because you have a little bit of a gap between those two or three hour sessions, but in the same amount of meeting time, I'm able to get groups further with more clear and more refined goals than I might do if I were working with them in person.
Pacing also allows strategic planning or other leadership groups to do refinement between the large group planning sessions with time, for back and forth. So people really feel like their perspectives have been taken into consideration. And then with the pandemic, of course, everyone has thought it just has brought to the fore how unpredictable our world is. And can you really plan in this VUCA world volatile, uncertain, chaotic, and I can't remember what the, a stands for (ambiguity). And it was always unpredictable. It's just more obvious now.
I always tell folks that a plan is just a plan. It's not set in stone. They aren't tablets from on high. There's something that you created yourself, but the process itself brings clarity and alignment by creating an opportunity to talk together and explore issues together.
Another thing that I'm seeing a lot about recently with people writing about and considering whether they're going back to the office, whether they're going to stay remote, the method they might do, a blended version is talk about that you can't have culture unless you're all together in the same office. And the truth is that any organization always has called.
There's always an organizational culture, whether you've named it, whether you've explored it or not. It really more, a matter of, are you clear about it? Are you explicit about it? Are you, do you have a type of culture that you want to move towards? That that feels healthier, that you're trying to work. And just bringing everyone back into the office is kind of a de default. It's a default that allows that culture to kind of be there by accident. It allows folks to maybe not pay so much attention to it.
I think one of the blessings in disguise is actually working remotely. That we really have to pay more attention to what the expectations are? How are you working together? What are those guide rails in terms of how much flexibility folks have and their schedules and, and how they're doing their work, what are they expected to produce in a particular week, et cetera. And so it's, again, it may be more of. Are the managers in your organization? Do they have the sufficient training and tools for how to, to manage in this remote and. And so in-person can be such a, just a substitute for giving folks the tools and training that they need to really build that intentional culture and manage well within a remote or a blended context.
So this provides you with an opportunity to shift their culture in a positive direction and get everyone in gray involved and envisioning and working towards and creating that new future instead of just favoring the preferences of leadership and defaulting to. Whether you continue remote or go for a blended schedule, all you have to do is decide if you all have to go back to the office together. Think about what you've learned in this past year, past a year and a half. What do you want to keep? What do you want to let go? There's lots of opportunity there for being more intentional, more and more in clear and more explicit about the type of organization and how you want it to feel to work within your organization.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. Again, we're excited to be celebrating our one year anniversary and as with every episode you can find show notes and links and resources at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. And you'll also find transcripts for each episode.
I'd like to thank Nora Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production, as well as April coaster of a hundred ninjas for her production support.
Please take a minute to rate and review mission impact on apple podcasts or wherever you listen to your podcasts. It helps others find the podcast and we appreciate it. Thanks a lot. And until next time.
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.