Recently I wrote an article that applied my past experience in “Talent Acquisition” (Recruiting) to the problem of recruiting nonprofit Board members. In this follow up I attempt to do the same to the problem of engaging (and retaining) nonprofit Board members (“Talent Retention”). Again the similarities between Board and staff talent issues are striking – it just takes a slight twist to apply the research and learnings to the other group.
A few foundational bits about employee engagement:
1. From a Wikipedia entry: “An "engaged employee" is one who is fully involved in, and enthusiastic about their work, and thus will act in a way that furthers their organization's interests.” Substitute Board member for employee and this definition works fine.
2. There are well researched links between employee engagement, productivity, retention, and overall organizational effectiveness and the bottom line. Here are research findings in a quick presentation.
3. The Gallup organization in a seminal study developed 12 questions, which they called Q12, to measure employee engagement. Below we highlight how some of these questions can be applied to Board Engagement.
In the 2011 Daring to Lead research and brief on Board/CEO relationships, research showed that there is a direct correlation between the amount of time the Executive Director spends on Board related activities and the rates of satisfaction with the Board's performance. In addition, the research showed that the average amount of time that E.D.’s spend with their Board is notably low - possibly because “Many executives struggle to define the ROI of board related activities and don’t understand their position of influence on that ROI.” My takeaway from the study, and through direct experience in working with many Boards, is that Board member engagement plays a large role in Board Member effectiveness and that the ED/CEO is primarily responsible for engaging members.
Unclear Expectations lead to low engagement: The Gallup Survey as well as a number of other recent studies indicate that clarity of expectations is key to engaging the employee. The first of the Q12 questions is “I know what is expected of me at work.” As stated in the research, “If expectations are not clear and basic materials and equipment are not provided, negative emotions such as boredom or resentment may result, and the employee may then become focused on surviving more than thinking about how he can help the organization succeed." When conducting Board Assessments I often find that Board members are not at all clear about the expectations of the Staff and/or organization – especially when it comes to fundraising, participation at events, or their role in giving direction to policies, programs and employees. This confusion often breeds resentment when the expectations are not met.
My advice: Have a clearly written and frequently reviewed Board Commitment/Expectation Document (sample here) that is used during the recruiting process, orientation, and is signed off on by all Board members at least once a year. The creation of this document should be the responsibility of the Governance Committee and be discussed and approved by the full board.
Focus on Me: 3 of Gallup’s Q12 questions: “1. Someone at work cares about me as a person. 2. I have a chance to do what I do best every day. 3. I received recognition or praise for doing good work” are about motivation and adding value. Engaged employees have a manager or superior who understands the individual's motivations, recognizes their strengths, and gives them praise. Often board members report that they are not sure what real value they are adding to the Board. Or, that their unique experience and strengths are not being used.
My Advice: I suggest to my CEO clients that they take each of their Board members out for lunch or coffee individually at least once or twice a year. The conversation should result in better understanding of:
This last question has a dual benefit, it allows the Board member to really feel like they are adding value by contributing advice and knowledge (almost everyone likes giving advice but not everyone will feel comfortable doing in a group meeting). And, it allows you to understand where their head is at on what may be a future Board vote.
Board Meetings and Making a Difference: The Q12 question, “My opinions seem to count” and related research on our need to feel that the work we do has a purpose and adds value are also keys to Board engagement. In my Board work this often comes out in feedback about board meetings. For example, ”We spend too much time on minutia and not enough time on strategic issues,“ “Board meetings are cursory, it seems as if we are racing through an agenda largely focused on financials so we can get out of the room in under an hour – this isn’t what I expected” or “The board is not engaged in generative & strategic thinking. At times we are mired down with tactical issues rather than governance issues." Consider that the vast majority of the board members time and exposure to the organization is only in the board meetings. So if these are tired, tactical, and generally not inspiring then why should we be surprised when attendance and engagement dwindles?
My advice: Overhaul your board meetings. Use committees appropriately, and then use a Consent Agenda to quickly move through the routine tasks of the Board. Use your strategic planning priorities to form the bulk of your board agenda (here is an example). Have the Board Chair steer discussions away from the tactical and back toward the organizations strategic priorities. A Board Chair who is has good facilitation skills is key to keeping a meeting at the strategic level.
I frequently provide workshops on how to hold effective meetings and one of the key points I make is the need to have everyone understand the expected outcomes of the meeting, Expected outcomes stated before the meeting begins allows partcipants to focus and the facilitator to steer the meeting toward the declared outcomes. As this HBR blog post points out there are really only 3 reasons to have a meeting: To inform and bring people up to speed, to seek input, and to ask for approval. In my experience Board meetings are usually a mixture of all three. Wouldn’t it be great if in a future Board meeting your Board Chair or CEO said, “Today’s meeting is just a discussion and brainstorming session – we will quickly take care of regular business and then we are going to focus on discussing and seeking your input on this (strategic issue here).
What do you think? Anyone else have practical advice on how to better engage Board members? Whose job do you think it is to put these ideas into practice?