On a recent overseas trip, I was at a social gathering when we got onto the topic of Not for Profit boards. A friend of the family told us a story of their kid’s sporting club that all but imploded due to poor governance and the actions of the board.
Issues with the group came to a head and they were replaced with a fresh volunteer team. Our family friend found himself in the position of president and charged with rebuilding the leadership of the sporting club.
Starting from scratch with a totally new board can be advantageous and yet it can be fraught with danger. A totally fresh approach may mean the troubles of the past are jettisoned and renewal can take place. It can also mean that the new board starting from scratch can have a long journey ahead if they don’t have the benefit of corporate knowledge and history.
Usually in the initial stages the group are united in getting the organisation back on track and can work well together towards common goals. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always stay that way. The family friend was looking for some words of wisdom to help him lead the new board while building trust and confidence along the way.
My advice came in the form of linking Bruce Tuckman’s theory on team development that proposes a group will go through 5 phases of development on its way to being effective. I have seen this play out in new boards I have been involved with. Similarly, Dr Paul Hersey’s Situational Leadership Model proposes that a team will move through different stages from immaturity to maturity.
Relating this to our friend’s new board, Tuckman advises that the first step is that of ‘Forming’ where the group may be a little hesitant to give too much of themselves and there may be a focus on the President or Chair to set the direction. The board will see themselves as being part of an important endeavour but there may be lack of cohesion just by the fact behaviours and processes may not have been tested. There will probably be a more micro focus especially on finance and performance of staff and managers.
My advice is to agree on roles and processes early on and even set ground rules for how they will act in discussion, decision making and the like. Setting this early can help establish routine early and assist in collaboration and goal setting.
Tuckman goes on to say that the next stage is ‘Storming’ where conflict can arise over direction, values and decisions where board members can start to become defensive, take sides and see things as win or lose without clear compromise. The board may not see that they are making as much progress as expected and it could look like things are going backwards.
To help your board through the Storming stage the Chair should encourage openness by bringing issues and discussion to the table rather than outside of meetings. They can also explore common ground and make sure they don’t ignore obvious issues. Leaning back on agreed process and behaviours that had been previously agreed to can help smooth the path.
Eventually there will be a ‘Norming’ stage which usually sees an increase in cooperation where the sharing of ideas and safer discussions take place. At this stage, the board can start to accomplish their true purpose. This is a great time to review goals and set some more ambitious outcomes. The board will start to see that they are rising above the perfunctory and starting to think about strategy.
Once the board moves into ‘Performing’ mode there will generally be greater routine with most interactions across the board and with the organisation itself. The board can start to think longer term and take a more macro approach to discussion and decision making. A more sophisticated approach to monitoring and measurement can be adopted and issues such as board turnover, diversity and skill sets can be tackled.
Tuckman added a fifth stage that he called ‘Adjourning’, which talks about the break up of the group after it has achieved its purpose. Probably more poignantly for a board is the ‘Interloper effect’ whereby new members joining the board can interrupt the team dynamics. They haven’t been through the same phases as the current board and can feel a little on the outer. Established directors can also see them in less favourable terms hence the name ‘interloper’.
Deliberate and sensible board turnover, coupled with a good induction process, board orientation and organisational orientation should negate this. It is essential to integrate new members as soon as possible. This can include new members joining established committees and being encouraged to join discussions.
Working with NFP Chairs I help them recognise and develop strategies to meet challenges like these that create effective governance teams and allow them to lead for purpose.