Transforming A Board Critic Into An Ardent Owner: A True Story

“What if she really disrupts the process, which you know she’s capable of doing?” asked the executive director of this large, prestigious children’s services nonprofit. “Can we afford to take the risk for such an important meeting?” he continued. The board chair, executive director and I were meeting in the executive director’s office to put together the “strategic work session design committee” that I – the facilitator they’d retained – would be working with to develop the objectives and blow-by-blow agenda of the daylong board-executive team strategic planning retreat scheduled around six weeks hence. It had been three years since the nonprofit had held an intensive planning retreat, and in light of the rapidly changing and increasingly challenging environment, choosing the board members who’d be involved in the committee was an extremely important task. And the three of us knew from experience that the design committee was a proven way of turning key board members into owners of – and champions for – the upcoming retreat.

Picking the first of the three board members who’d make up the design committee was a no-brainer: the chair of the board’s planning and development committee, which was formally responsible for board involvement in strategic planning, and a highly successful entrepreneur who was gung-ho about growing the nonprofit’s services and revenues and was a strong proponent of holding the daylong planning session. The third choice wasn’t so obvious, and one of the names we’d been batting around – let’s call her Linda – was a retired financial services executive who would definitely bring pertinent expertise and credibility to the work session design process. Linda had done a great job of chairing the board’s monitoring committee for two years and knew the nonprofit’s finances inside-out. However, while three or four board members had expressed reservations about spending a day together brainstorming strategic issues and future directions, Linda had been a vocal opponent – and the sole vote against holding the retreat.

With some misgivings, we decided to take the risk and made Linda the third member of our strategic work session design committee, and I’m happy to report that our bet paid off handsomely. What we hoped would happen really did happen: Participating on the committee and being tapped to lead one of the six breakout groups during the retreat – transformed Linda from vociferous critic to ardent owner of the retreat. And an added benefit of our choice was bringing around the few board members who’d been skeptical of getting together for a whole day.

In my last post I talked about guarding against unhealthy board member ownership. By contrast, this case demonstrates the value of transforming board members into owners. And, by the way, when you’re dealing with outspoken critics like Linda, you’re well advised to involve them in planning an event instead of having them sniping from the sidelines, or worse, actively sabotaging your meeting.

Doug Eadie