Impactful boards with Larry Robertson
In episode 61 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guest, Larry J. Robertson discuss:
Larry Robertson is an organizational development and certified governance consultant who specializes in helping nonprofit and state and local governments assess, plan, and improve organizational strategies, governance, leadership, and talent. His work includes organizational assessments, strategic planning, strategy coaching, nonprofit board development and transformation, and talent management. He tailors services to fit the needs and aspirations of each organization through an appropriate mix of analytic consulting, coaching, training, facilitation, and product development. Larry has extensive experience offering these services to organizations that range from small, startup nonprofits to large, mature state and municipal agencies. He has an M.A. in Human Development from the University of Maryland and a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Miami.
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Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Larry Robertson. Larry and I talk about the fundamentals of healthy nonprofit governance, red flags that governance needs attention, and why boards should be hearing from and interacting with more staff than just the executive director
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, Larry. Welcome to Mission Impact.
Larry Robertson: Thank you, Carol. Good to see you.
Carol: So I'd like to start the conversation with helping people get some context of your background. So what would you say drew you to the work that you do and, and what motivates you? What would you describe as your why?
Larry: I mean, I think the simplest answer is, is having discernible impact. And I, I, I know we're gonna talk about governance some, but I came that route somewhat indirectly. Okay. I was sitting on a board some years ago and We were nominated for an award. We ended up winning the award. And as a result of that, we got two free trainings. I was one of the people who went to the training. Then out of the two of us, they asked, Well, who can sit on the committee to select our winners for the next year? And so I was that person who didn't step back when they were looking for volunteers. And I ended up being on that committee in 2012. And, and they haven't gotten rid of me yet. And as a result of that, I was on a board that had a significant impact, but that was the impression that I had. But then as I started to learn more about governance, I started to see just how significant an impact the board can have by what it does or what it doesn't do. And we can talk more about that.
Carol: Excellent. You often work with organizations around board development, around governance, strengthening their governance. What would you say are some of the fundamental elements that folks involved with non-profits really need to understand about non-profit governance?
Larry: I think there are probably a couple of things. One is the fiduciary responsibility that a board has, is one of the paramount things. And then one of the things that tends to happen is that boards. Play out how they carry out that function in either a range of ways, one of which can be very onerous and they can be over-involved in the organization and down into the weeds of it. Where if they have competent staff, they don't really need to be there. They need to play a different role and be complementary to the staff. The other one that is equally dangerous is when they fall behind and don't play an active role and pay attention. The detail and one of the biggest ways that that happens is by not observing the extent to which the organization has the capability to survive and then preferably to thrive. Cuz what my work focuses on is how do you actually get organizations to thrive? The sweet spot is the great spot. And that's where boards recognize that they have this, august duty to be the fiduciary body of the organization. But they also are strategic partners with the executive leadership. They recognize as a fiduciary body also and strategically they recognize the need to kind of. Ensure that the board, that the organization has sufficient resources to operate, that there's this clear vision to a path to the future. And that their focus is as much there as it is about the inner workings of the organization. And they look for results to come back to them rather than the detailed process pieces. And, some of the conversations I have with people are really about the concerns they have about the role that the board plays. And if those rules of engagement aren't clear, you can get a lot of fuzziness, you can have 11 people on a board, and they all have 11 different interpretations of what governance entails. And so a large part of what I try to do is some level setting of really trying to get down to things like what's the purpose and do we have a shared understanding of the purpose, the roles, the responsibilities of the board. And then, then we can talk about tactics of how you actually make it work.
Carol: Absolutely. And you started out by saying fiduciary responsibility and I'm, I'm could, could you just define that for folks?
Larry: I mean, you're the stewards of an institution and that means that you have a range of duties, duty of care, duty of loyalty, all those things. But more or less, what it basically means is that the institution is within the grasp of the board and that the board really can be looked upon as the chief responsibility officer. They actually represent the highest level of responsibility within that organization, legally and morally so to speak. And so they need to make sure, much like parents need to make sure that. Their family is taken care of. When you send some of your kids off to college, you wanna make sure that the university takes care of them as well. And so there's a, there's a really August responsibility that you have as a board member and people as they consider board membership, they really do need to take that seriously because legally they're the ones that are gonna be responsible for that institution. And I keep calling it an institution because of some boards. Look more toward the leader and not as the institution, the cause, the purpose of why we're actually having this non-profit exist, and that is really typically supposed to be the paramount reason why the organization exists. It's so easy to get caught up in all those interpersonal things and either, trying to be out front of the staff leader or following the staff leader or, depending on the stage of the organization. They may not even have that yet. But I think a lot of folks go into board membership leadership without really understanding. How they are on the hook for the organization, its purpose. And not necessarily the, the, the people the individuals that happen to be there, happen to be around the table at the time. Although, of course, those individuals have so much impact on whether the organization is thriving or not, particularly if they're founders. And if, if I'm on a board and looking at a founder, I have to look at this as if that is their baby. That is their brainchild, and you have to respect that. At the same time, that can't be the only driver of how you operate. And so you wanna be respectful and it's a really delicate balance to strike.
Carol: And, and I think you've already named a few of those, but what are some red flags when you're coming into organizations that signal to you that governance is weak within the organization?
Larry: Well, I'll say that governance needs opportunity strengthening for improvement. . I think some of the things are: lack of clarity about the purpose of the board, whether the board is really in the game to have true impact, or if it's there because legally you have to have a board in pretty much every state. The extent to which the board members are engaged, and that would mean that they participate in strategy setting. That they recognize that their role is complementary. To the staff, but distinct from the staff that they also have some sense of where the organization is in its development. And that is one of the things that we can get hung up on is some of, I think you and I have talked about this before, some of the orthodoxies that people follow, everything is situational. And if a board recognizes that the organization is at a particular place and its development. It needs to govern according to that and then where it's headed after that point. So a very new board or a new organization that is getting its footing needs a different level of governance than, say, a board that, an organization that has. 20 years of experience resource rich and has, really more existential strategic concerns at hand. The other thing is the extent to which boards have made the simple decisions about what participation entails. What including expectations around whether you give, you, get funds or those sorts of things. And so basically at all to the extent that the roles. The purpose, the responsibilities of the boards are clear and that they actively make a meaningful impact on the organization. And so those are some of the, some of the key features, I think, and the extent to which they actually view themselves as a cooperative body and collaborator with the staff is one of the things I'll look for.
Carol: A couple things in that, that you talked about. I was working with an organization and, and I generally am working with them around strategic planning. I think one value is that those of us who are consultants that go from organization to organization and, and have some of that perspective around, around a life cycle, a typical life cycle of a nonprofit, they were going through that very common transition from a completely volunteer board. They'd had staff for a little while, but we're still struggling with roles and responsibilities and, some of the founding board members wanting to have things, the way they'd always been when, when they did everything. And just being able to share that construct of you're going through a very typical transition, it calmed everybody down. Mm-hmm. because they'd made it so you know about the personalities in the room versus just the very typical organizational transition that they were going through, and how then roles needed to be renegotiated and, and rethought. So I really appreciated that. And then you talked a couple times around the complementary role of the board and staff and then having a collaborative Engagement with the staff. And one of the things that I've seen where some of those orthodoxies around board governance maybe have been misapplied have been where some of them work around. The executive director, as the only staff person of, that's chosen by the board and then that real bright line between board and staff that that can be, can become so, Hard and fast that the executive director is really the pivot point and neither group talks to each other. And so then that, to me, I've observed where that just puts so much power in that executive director role that it can be really harmful to the organization.
Larry: I think that it's a communication, but more or less it's a management leadership issue around permeability. It's true that the board does oversee one person, which is the exec, the chief exec. However, that is not a hard and fast firewall. A good board is gonna be inclusive. And it's gonna be comprehensive in where it gets its information from. It's gonna get that information from staff as well as external parties as well, who have a vested interest in the organization. So I'll, so let's base it on, what I've seen is the high functioning organizations and what they typically, what you'll typically see at the board meetings are open staff who are welcoming and sometimes actually have a role in those. They pay very particular attention to key staff, particularly financial staff in, in board meetings because they have a level of insight that is contributing to board's decision making. They will play a big role with development people. And oftentimes, I know at least on the board that I was on, we would follow the lead of the development person and the chief executive. And so there was a very close relationship there. They'll pay a lot of attention to what's going on programmatically, but only in the sense of not getting into the machinations of programming, but in terms of the impact that the programs are having on the population that they're intending to serve. And so that relationship tends to be really collaborative in the sense that the board needs to make, needs to deliberate and take certain actions, and they can't do that in a vacuum. And the chief executive. A good chief executive will recognize that they don't have to be the expert in the end all in the conversation. And so they will invite into that conversation the people who have the bird's eye view of those particular areas. And that will inform the board in making, really having well rounded deliberations because the staff will be right there in the mix of that conversation and there, and there's a clear distinction between who has voice and who has vote. What a tendency in these really high functioning boards, a staff board and other people that they invite into the conversation have a voice. At the end of the day, the board has the vote, but the question is, what does the board have the vote on? And so that brings to another chapter in the conversation, which is how do you make a clear delineation between that, which is the provide of staff and that which is the provide. The board and while they might have conversations that have some overlap, who takes action and makes decisions is gonna be, should be clearly delineated. It makes it, it's not as nice and neat as I'm portraying it, but to the extent that you can get it close to there, it will make for a better partnership between the two parties. And there will sometimes be some tension, but tension isn't necessarily a bad thing. It means there's a resolution that needs that's around the. If you work it the right way.
Carol: And I think what I've observed is folks really wanting it to be a very bright line and, very. And, and so struggling with the ambiguity of, is this ultimately a board responsibility and role or what role does the staff have in it, especially around strategy, aligning to the mission and those kinds of things. What have you seen where organizations have, have done a good job of, really setting their, their strategic alignment and being inclusive and yet, honoring the responsibility the board has with that fiduciary.
Larry: I can think of a couple of recent examples from me of organizations that have won the board leadership award, and they both, they actually both have, they have a couple of things in common. They serve marginalized communities by and large, and they were large organizations that decided to make huge changes. Their physical plant, including one, in one case, the place where they serve, because where they served really affected who they served. And they made changes to partnerships. And so all of these things came into play that affected how they looked at what their mission was and any shifts that they made in mission. They had those conversations in concert with the staff and the communities that they served, so they weren't just doing it in isolation. They engaged very thoughtfully in a very planful, intentional way over a significant period of time and made these significant shifts in that. Put them on the line in terms of how they raise money, what they raise money for, the partnerships that they created to create these new physical plans, because they actually had to do that in one case, the organization moved from one part of DC to a different part, and that was a radical shift, and they basically referred to themselves as a placed based organization, but they had to get staff aligned with that. Both of them did if they recognized it in order for them to make the major shifts, they were pretty bold moves in both cases. They had to adopt the mentality and an orientation and a practice of full ownership. Of all partners, staff were partners. Not these, not something, they weren't doing things to staff, they were doing things with staff and in the end it made their success more apparent because they were able to accomplish these, these, big things. And, a few years out, in both cases, they're actually now, you know, prospering as a result of that relationship. And they don't have the types of tensions that a tendency when. Are not, they're not necessarily an afterthought, but they're not engaged in the processes as genuinely as they should be. And staff will know if they are really owners. And it's, and I make the distinction between owning and buying in, It's great to buy into something, but you actually get a whole lot more bang for the buck when you can get everyone to own it because they actually are part of the making of it. And, and I think in these cases, that's the difference.
Carol: . And I, the way you're talking about it when it's, when folks are trying to really, I think find that, that perfect bright line of, the, what's, what's on the board side, what's on the staff side. There's the, there's often To me, what it comes down is, is power dynamics and the healthy relationships that you're talking about are more of that partnership, more of that power with rather than power over. And so really appreciating that we all have our different roles. We're not gonna all be doing exactly the same thing, but if ultimately we're pulling in the same direction and, and own those decisions I think that makes a huge difference. But it takes a lot of trust. I'm, I'm working with a group and there's, there's a lot of questioning around all, all the different basic VO vocabulary and what do people mean by each thing and, and, and to some extent, I, I'm curious about what the real level of trust is with between the different parties that's there,
Larry: You said something, Carol, that I think triggered something that I hadn't thought about as overtly as this before, and that, and you basically described emotional intelligence. Maybe a different twist on a question you asked earlier. What would I, what do I see in those boards that really work well? That's actually one of the things
Carol: Is it the board members and those and the leaders all?
Larry: It’s an emotionally intelligent organization.
Carol: So say more about what an emotionally intelligent organization looks like.
Larry: Well, one of the biggest things is that everyone is gonna be mission driven. I'll give you another example of one of these organizations, and they just blew us away. When they were coming up for the board leadership award a few years ago, they recognized that they were at this inflection point, some time ago, that they had lost a significant funder. They were doing work both nationally, internationally, and thought that they needed to, really focus and make a shift. So it's a part of their strategic plan. They did a couple of things. They wanted to focus more on really serious aggressive development of raising funds. So they brought a couple of people onto the board who were, and one of whom I know. So it's like if they got hurt, then they were rocking . They got these two high level development people on their board and they started to create this whole path of development as a part of the board membership. But one of the other things that they did that I thought, One of the most emotional and intelligent and mature things I've seen is that they actually set out a plan to fire themselves as a board.
Carol: Say more about that.
Larry: What does that look like? So what they essentially did is they set within a certain amount of time, each member of this board will be off of the board. And I think it was maybe about three or four year period. And at the time that they came up for the board leadership award, we, we were talking to the last two or three members of that original, that previous board. Both of whom I would put on any board on Earth, quite frankly, they were just that good. But the thoughtfulness and the selflessness behind what they did was just so admirable. It was one of the few times in the interviews and boards, I didn't ask any questions and at, and at the end I asked my committee mates, Can anyone poke a hole? And we are a really critical group, , and the room went silent and they, and it was just because they had that, they had, they were just pumping on all cylinders. And that was a good example of how the organization from staff to board recognized that culture is based upon leadership, and leadership is dependent upon the emotional intelligence of its.
Carol: And what they did there sounds like they were really intentional about essentially succession planning for, from the board point of view and, and really building a, a pipeline and, and seeing their exit versus, I've gotta stick around cuz I was here at the beginning.
Larry: Right, and they also understood what drove them was, they looked to the future and said here are the competencies, here are the skills, the, the experience, the attributes that we need to have now and into the future. And I know you and I did the piece on succession planning with another group and that it sounds very familiar, doesn't it? That they looked into the future and said, this is what we're gonna need. . And so let's now start to prepare for them, and that is like one of the biggest things that a board can do is to be, and that is really one of the charges as a strategic body. What a board should be able to do is to start to project and, and, and you don't do it with a crystal ball because life does interrupt, but you wanna look into the future to the extent that you can and start. Look at, what aspirations, what challenges, what opportunities are down the pike and who's around the table to help us address those things. And that's what the, and that, and I think in the, the cases that I've presented so far, that's what the boards have done, is they've all been really very intentional about recognizing what the future might look like for them and how they can have an impact on that future by making, smart strategic decision. By incorporating the input from different sources of information, data, people, et cetera.
Carol: And one of the big things that has been demonstrated through research over and over again is how White, top organizations are, especially at the board level and, and that disconnect between the folks who are sitting around that table and the purpose of the organization, who they're trying to serve. And, and, but that, that lived experience not being centered in the conversation. So I think a lot of organizations are really grappling with that right now. And, and it does take some emotional intelligence to realize, Okay, it may be time for me to step aside.
Larry: True. And because the question is who are you serving? Are you serving self or institution? And in each of the cases that I've talked about so far, it was very clear that these really high functioning boards understood what their purpose was. That their purpose was not about them. It was about the mission. It was about the people that they serve, and they put that above all else.
Carol: Well, that's why I started each of these conversations with a question around why, because it's, it's just so important.
So at the end of each episode I play a game where I ask a random icebreaker question that I have a box of. So. I always put out three so I can just grab one from it. So what mistake would you say you keep making over and over again or, what lesson does the universe keep throwing in front of you that you have to learn over and over again?
Larry: Let's see. Only one?
Carol: One's good enough for today.
Larry: I think the one that I remind clients of that I have to keep reminding myself of is that it is around the concept of the stages of change. And I know if you're familiar with what Percha and Clement's work and recognizing that you can't always jump into action mode if. Haven't gone, worked through the processes and basically the stages of change. Talk about pre-contemplation, where you're thinking about thinking about it, and then contemplation, and then you're actually thinking about it and then planning and, and, but much like most consultants, I have to take a step back and constantly remember, we're not ready for action yet because they are not emotionally, mentally at that place. And so I have to keep reminding myself. The process begins is really about figuring out where someone is in the stage of change and getting them to move from that. Your task is to get them to move from that stage to the next, not directly to action if they're not ready for that. And so I think that is an age old thing that most consultants battle with. And we have to, we actually have to pray on it, meditate about it, or whatever. It's a level of mindfulness that's important to keep driving us.
Carol: Always a question that I have for myself is, am I doing what I'm asking my clients to do? Am I doing it myself and staying true to that? Or am I just yapping about something? ? So it's an important thing to remember. So what are you excited about? What's up next for you? What's emerging in the work that you're doing?
Larry: I think I've. Finding these opportunities with these small startup organizations and I'm finding some real stars. There's one I'm working with now that I've been really excited about because they've only been around since 2018, but they have already progressed beyond the thinking and how they have actually put together their pieces. They've already passed a lot of organizations that have been around a lot longer because they do something very simple, which is that they listen. And they ask questions about what they should be doing, and it's like, Oh, I love these. And they're, and they're a group of young people and young people of color. And so they, they've, they've gotten my attention. And there's another project that you'll probably relate to this, that. I'm working with the Center for Nonprofit Advancement in the DC Bar, Pro Bono Center on, it's putting together some sort of a package. We haven't put together this toolkit yet on helping folks think through the process of starting a non-profit. What you experience, what I experience as consultants is that we walk into habits that have already been formed. And so what this initiative is that we are trying to kick off probably in, in 2023, is to get them on the thinking, the conceptual stage of it, and to give them a good running start to include the recognition that you need to have the right people on the board to. They may not be the people who are gonna be on your board three to five years from now. Right.
Carol: And start that mentality from the very beginning.
Larry: Understanding the developmental stages as an organization that you're gonna go through and what you need now and what you need as you move on toward, having your feet solidly, planet on earth will be a very different type of dynamic. And some, in some cases it may mean that the founder may need to shapeshift into a different role as.
Carol: , I really appreciate folks who are founders who realize that that's their energy, that they're really good at getting things started, but not necessarily the right person to stick around for a long time. And they may need to go start something, a new thing or, or they become
Larry: The face to voice, the passion of the organization. It depends. I mean, it depends. And someone else can operate it. And that happens a lot with the people I've worked with. Arts groups, particularly performing arts groups, and that tends to be, what they do is they siphon off the artistic part from the organizational part, right? And they have this bifurcated management structure, but it works for them as long as they, again, have clearly delineated roles.
Carol: Exactly. Well, you mentioned the board leadership award. It's, and it's the org I think it's the organization that you mentioned, Center for Nonprofit Advancement in DC which is essentially the, the state non-profit association for the DMV area and I'm on their other awards committee, so for full transparency, the one that looks at the executive director and the CEO of nonprofits. And, and, in that, in those conversations we're having the same deliberations and the people that end up winning that award really have that Emotional Intelligence, but also I think the emotional maturity and health to be truly collaborative, both with staff and with the board. So. All right. Well, thank you so much. It was great having you on the podcast. It was, I, I really appreciated our conversation.
Larry: Thank you. And I'll think about that last question again.
Carol: I appreciated Larry’s point that while the roles and responsibilities of the board and staff need to be clear – they are not a bright line – and there should not be a firewall between board and staff beyond the executive director. This is always a balancing act because it can be too easy for board members to get too far into the operational aspects of the organization or start acting like a staff member’s boss when that staff member reports to the Executive director. So it is messy – and needs frequent attention and likely renegotiation as the organization grows and matures. I also appreciated Larry’s point around cultivating open communications throughout the organization. That for the culture to be truly impactful and collaborative – board members should know staff and likewise. The executive director should not be the sole source of information that the board relies on. I have worked at organizations where staff were literally prohibited from speaking to board members unless they were on the senior staff. To me this is a red flag. It points to a very controlling and top down culture. What is the ED afraid of in that case? Perhaps it is inappropriate complaints by staff going to board members? And if so – is there a safe and clear way for staff to share their feedback and challenges? I have experienced executive directors so closely managing what information was shared to hide real challenges within the organization from the board – to the point in one case where the senior management almost bankrupted the organization. So communication, trust, collaboration and transparency – all things that will result when the folks involved in the board – staff partnership that undergirds healthy governance have the emotional intelligence and maturity that Larry mentioned.
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 Larry Robertson, 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. Please take a minute to rate and review Mission Impact on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. It helps other people find the podcast. We appreciate it! And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
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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.
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