Board Development

How BORED is Your BOARD?

By Larry Johnston

One of the better articles on boards is “The New Work of the Nonprofit Board,” from the Harvard Business Review (Reprint Number 96509). The article opens with the following sad but true state of affairs:

Effective governance by the board of a nonprofit organization is a rare and unnatural act. Only the most uncommon of nonprofit boards functions as it should by harnessing the collective efforts of accomplished individuals to advance the institution’s mission and long-term welfare. A board’s contribution is meant to be strategic, the joint product of talented people brought together to apply their knowledge and experience to the major challenges facing the institution.

What happens instead? Nonprofit boards are often little more than a collection of high-powered people engaged in low-level activities.

The authors go on to point out that the reasons are myriad, and the ones they mention are on the money (perhaps the most important being “strategic misalignment” or “majoring on the minor” although they don’t use these terms).

But they don’t address something that in my experience more boards need to address: aligning individual board member portfolios with their strengths.

Prior to facilitating a recent board retreat, I suggested to the board chair that we buy each board member a copy of Strengths Finder 2.0 by Tom Rath. The purpose was not only to introduce the board to strengths theory and strengths-based leadership, but to have them complete the Strengths Finder profile prior to the retreat. Because one of the goals of the retreat was to begin to overhaul the board and its work, the results of the individual profiles would allow us to build a strengths map showing which board members had different strengths in the four key organizational domains of Execution, Influencing, Relationship Building, and Strategic Thinking.

Although it will be some time before all these board members settle into their sweet spots in terms of fit with the organization’s strategic agenda, I think one of the “Aha!s” for the group was a whole new level of clarity regarding the upside of “fit” and the downside of “mis-fit.” When we soar with our strengths, we not only perform better but we feel better and that energy is contagious. Recalling one of my favorite management books of many years ago, Zapp! The Lightening of Empowerment, it means we’re more likely to be Zappers! than Sappers.

Over the years I’ve known board members who have developed the gift of enlightenment: They can lighten up a room just by leaving! The problem is not that they’re misfits, just “mis-fits,” earnestly but counter-strategically willing to do with marginal effectiveness and energy-eroding weariness the assignments they never should have said “Yes” to in the first place.

One of my greatest personal discoveries decades ago was that “Half of bein’ smart is knowin’ what you’re dumb at.” If the fizz has gone flat, your board is bored, and you’re your board meetings would make funerals look fun by comparison, check to see if board members are working in their areas of strengths. And remember that with board members as with staff and volunteers: “Don’t try to put in what God left out. Try to draw out what God put in.”