Working with diverse organisations and people over many years in corporate roles and consulting has taught me two very important lessons. Firstly, we share more in common than we think, and secondly, where there are differences, if understood and harnessed, they can make us stronger together.
Your not for profit board is no exception. Good boards go out of their way to find difference in board members but it is usually referred to as diversity. Those differences can come in the form of background, experiences, age, attitudes, knowledge and skills, just to name a few.
Just as important is that we also look for like-minded people who are as passionate about the cause or purpose, or who might have a personal connection through family, friends and the community and are generally highly motivated to act on behalf of your cause.
You might say that putting so many different people together can create conflict but that is exactly what we are trying to harness on a board. In its purest definition ‘conflict’ is bout difference and opposing views.
Passion and motivation can also drive some members to act in a certain way and make it difficult to find common ground if there is a feeling of injustice or righteousness which can be a much larger issue to wrangle. This, however, may be just what you are looking for if your NFP is fighting for human rights, environmental constraints, preservation of services or economic equality.
If your board is always nodding in agreement and not challenging ideas, proposals or actions then it’s time to start worrying. A good Chair will seek out those differences and ensure robust discussion ensues.
The important thing here is that we all see things differently, have different filters and see different possibilities. If a board is just a reflection of the status quo then it would be more efficient to leave it to senior management or just have an accountant check the books once a month.
How can we understand common ground and harness difference to the benefit our NFP board?
Learning styles. There are a few models out there that look to explain how we learn but there are three main styles that are widely accepted being Kinesthetic, Auditory and Visual. Try this simple online test.
Thinking Styles. Robert Bramson’s ‘Coping with Difficult Bosses’, discusses five alternative styles of thinking and problem solving that we use regularly.
Personality. There are many tools in the market place that look to explain different personalities. The most recognisable might be the Myers Briggs Type Indicators that uses preference around being introverted or extroverted, sensing and intuition, thinking and feeling, judging and perceiving. The combination of these factors creates 16 types of personality.
Culture can also be looked at in the broader sense of upbringing as attitudes can also vary with socioeconomic factors not just ethnicity. Many not for profit organisations also deal with the more vulnerable members of our society and very often have representatives of their user groups as either part of the board or as advisors and sounding boards for discussion and decision making.
All of these things added together make an interesting mix of challenges for regular life, but can be magnified when trying to get the most out any board.
There are two main objectives to this exercise. The first objective is to understand what differences may exist and secondly to learn as a group how to work effectively with each other.
If a board member won’t agree to back a proposal, it is more likely to be that they want to understand the detail first because that’s how they make decisions. Requests for proposals in advance of strategy meetings may mean they prefer to read up front prepare their questions in advance. Impatience over too much detail and naval gazing may mean they like action and big picture thinking.
This may seem frustrating but the challenge for the board, and Chairs in particular, is to harness these preferences for the good of the organisation. This could include using the big thinker on the Strategy Committee and the critical thinker on the Risk or Finance committee.
It can also tell you a lot about the effectiveness of your board. Too many big thinkers can lead to great plans but no action and too many critical thinkers can lead to polarisation around decision making and a lack of consideration for strategic direction.
Understanding and harnessing preferences is an essential step on the way to creating an impactful board. If you send out board papers well in advance, allow time for discussion in meetings and let everyone have their say, present numbers and graphs together and be clear on what decisions are to be made you will appeal to many different styles and preferences.