My son William, then 11 or 12, and I had just sat down to breakfast at our hotel, when I pulled out a brochure and pad and began map out our day together touring Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Enthusiastically describing the wonderful experience in store for us, I noticed that William, head hanging, was looking anything but excited. “What’s up with him?” I thought. “He’s the one who chose Greenfield Village for a father-son outing, and I can’t believe he’s lost interest before we’ve even started our tour.” Then it hit me: “I’m making this my day, not his. No wonder he’s losing interest.” Going with my gut – and, being a classic control-freak, against the grain – without another thought I just handed William the brochure and pad, saying “Why don’t you map out the day from beginning to end, including where we eat.” Seeing a skeptical look cross his face, I reassured him: “I’m serious; the day’s yours to plan; I’ll just go along with whatever you want to do.” Perking up, Will got to work with gusto, and the itinerary was ready by the time breakfast arrived. I re-learned a valuable lesson about the power of ownership, and, by the way, we had a great day together.
Ownership isn’t just a personal force, of course. Countless times over my quarter-century as a nonprofit leadership consultant, I’ve seen the power of ownership at work, fueling high-stakes change that otherwise would probably have bitten the dust. Two examples come to mind.
Jeff Finkle, president & CEO of the International Economic Development Council (IEDC) – newly created by a merger of the American Economic Development Council and the Council for Urban Economic Development – was faced with the challenge of transforming his brand new board (essentially a combination of the existing two boards) into an effective governing body. Chris Fox, executive director of the International and American Associations for Dental Research faced a similar challenge: reforming two under-performing boards that were mired in programmatic and technical details while not providing the strategic guidance necessary to capitalize on major growth opportunities. Jeff and Chris, both board-savvy association CEOs, tapped the power of ownership to get the different board development jobs done.
Jeff convinced his board chair to appoint a large “governance task force” consisting of equal numbers of AEDC and CUED representatives serving on the new IEDC board. With consulting assistance over the course of three months, the task force fashioned a number of recommendations aimed at clarifying the new board’s governing role and putting in place a modern committee structure. This task force of board members presented the recommendations to the full board and, after their adoption, oversaw implementation. The IADR and AADR board chairs, following Chris’ recommendation, created an ad hoc committee representing both boards to design a daylong retreat of the two boards, which identified board governance issues and brainstormed possible actions to address them. After the retreat, the ad hoc committee worked with a consultant to develop specific recommendations for strengthening the two boards and presented the recommendations at a special work session involving both boards.
In both cases, early and intensive board involvement in shaping the governance improvement recommendations bred strong ownership, transforming a number of board members into ardent “change champions,” who played a key role in convincing their peers to adopt the recommendations. In both cases, the recommendations were subsequently implemented, resulting in highly effective governing boards. If Jeff and Chris had chosen the traditional course of hiring consultants to study the situations and come up with recommendations themselves, which they would then sell to the IEDC, IADR and AADR boards, it’s highly unlikely that the board capacity building initiatives would have been nearly as successful.