Teamwork in the abstract is neither here nor there for nonprofit and public boards. The only serious reason for developing your board’s teamwork is to help it function as a more effective governing body that gets its governing work done more effectively and efficiently. The acid test of an effective team is its productivity in accomplishing its assigned tasks. Productive teams are also generally characterized by a high level of cooperation and coordination in getting their work done, harmonious relations among team members, the absence of debilitating conflicts, and to the capacity to withstand considerable stress and strain without falling apart. You probably won’t have any problem finding where your board belongs on the teamwork spectrum, between“herd of cats” at one end and “made in heaven” at the other.
Although it makes sense for your nonprofit or public board to pay focused attention to becoming a more effective governing team, you wouldn’t want to carry teamwork too far. You obviously wouldn’t want to attempt to eliminate all tension or even occasional conflict from your board’s governing process. In today’s changing, challenging world, which places a premium on your board’s dealing with highly complex governing issues, the last thing you would want is a board of “good little boys and girls” who placidly go along with staff recommendations, without asking the really tough questions.
Turning a diverse group of 15 or more people with varied backgrounds, experience, expertise, and affiliations into a cohesive governing team can be a daunting task, especially in the nonprofit world, where board members often bring highly individual agendas and varying levels of governing experience and expertise to the boardroom. For example, I recently worked with an organization whose board included several members passionately concerned about cost control and efficiency and several equally passionate about service expansion. There was certainly no ultimate “bottom line” to unify these board members, as is true in the for-profit sector. And typically, in my experience, board members arrive in the boardroom without a clear understanding of their governing role and the nuts and bolts work involved in governing.
In my experience, three strategies have proved really useful in building cohesive board governing teams:
- Focusing on ultimate governing goals
- Adopting board governing performance targets and interaction guidelines
- Building emotional bonds among board members.
I’ll deal with the first strategy in this post and the second and third in part 2.
Experience has probably taught you, as it has me, that members of a team tend to be more committed to their team’s work when they clearly understand the ultimate purposes the team is intended to serve. There’s no reason to believe that nonprofit boards are any exception, and, in fact, the ones I’ve observed that do have a handle on their governing “bottom line” really do function as stronger governing teams. Many nonprofit boards have taken the approach of adopting a “board governing mission” spelling out the board’s major responsibilities. The first step is often developing a preliminary governing mission statement in a retreat, then using a committee to refine the version that is ultimately adopted by resolution. This governing mission typically becomes a key component in the orientation program for new board members.
For example, elements that have appeared in nonprofit board governing missions include: periodically updating core values, vision for the future, and mission; playing a leading, proactive role in strategic decision-making; ensuring that the annual operating plan includes measurable performance targets and that the annual budget document reflects those targets and addresses the most important operational issues; carefully reviewing and adopting the annual budget; ensuring that the nonprofit’s public image is positive and that its relationships with key stakeholders are productive; monitoring the nonprofit’s operational and financial performance; etc.
The point is not that any board could carry out these responsibilities by itself, but that board members should be guided by the governing mission in carrying out their governing work, in close collaboration with the CEO and executive team.