Dani Robbins

Archive for April, 2013|Monthly archive page

Hiring Lessons Learned the Hard Way

In Leadership, Organizational Development on April 20, 2013 at 11:51 am

The most important lessons I have learned in my career I have learned the hard way.  How to hire was among the most difficult lessons.

When I first started out as a manager I hired people like me, or what I perceived myself to be – young, smart, idealistic.  As you might imagine, an entire team of young, smart, idealists may be missing a few qualities – experience among them.

My job became a lot easier the day I learned to the stop hiring like that.  I learned how to create the process needed to ensure I hired the people who had the values and experience to take my agency where we wanted to go.

What a difference that made! Not only was my agency stronger because I learned to hire better, but it was an opportunity to note my own professional development.

Here’s what happened:

I was interviewing to fill a program position that coordinated a drug, alcohol and premature sexual activity prevention program.  The interviewee, who worked at a sister agency in a neighboring community in the (exact!!) same position I was seeking to fill, said he was fine with the drug and alcohol part but that he thought that sex was a topic best left to the parents.  Whoa Nelly!

I stopped the interview and explained that the position required the coordination of all of the aspects of the program.  I asked if he was willing to fulfill the position duties.  He said no. I ended the interview.

Several days later, he sent me a note thanking me for my time and noting that we had a difference of opinion.  Now, normally, I wouldn’t have responded, but you know I cannot resist a teach-able moment!

I immediately called him and explained that we didn’t have a difference of opinion; that, in fact, he didn’t even know my opinion.  What we had was a position to fill and a candidate that wasn’t willing to fulfill all the aspects of the position.

Now ten years prior, I wouldn’t have been able to make that distinction.  In fact, I might have been the one that sent the note in the first place.

What happened in those intervening years?  Experience.  Lessons learned. Failures.

The distinction is the difference between objective and subjective.  It’s the distance traveled between an opinion and a performance requirement.  It’s the lesson learned in hiring the wrong person and having to fire them later – and the political capital spent every time it happens.  It’s the experience that comes with not trusting your gut and the price you pay when you realize your mistake.  It’s the take away from ignoring that little voice that tells you not to do something even though you can’t communicate why.

The thing about lessons learned the hard way is that they usually only take one time to stick.  Life, after all, is about making new mistakes.

What lessons have you learned the hard way?  What advice can you share?

As always, I welcome your experience and insight.

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The Best Advice

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards on April 15, 2013 at 3:39 pm

The best advice I ever received as a nonprofit CEO was “you will get the board you build.” Up until that day, which I will never forget, I thought that since I reported to the Board, I should stay out of it.  Boy, was I wrong!  In addition to giving up the power to influence who would become the future leaders of my organizations, and as such, my future bosses, I also passed on the chance to educate my board about their governance responsibilities.  I failed to use my position to strengthen the board and through them to strengthen my agency.  Up until that moment, I didn’t understand that building the board was my job.

When I finally clued in and began to participate in board development efforts, my agency benefited in spades: we created a vision that improved services, and the number of people receiving those services; we merged with another organization, did a capital campaign, built a new building, and renovated two more buildings.  And the board of directors became the board of choice in the community.

Now that I am a consultant, I field calls from CEOs and Board members alike looking for board governance assistance and using words like “under-engaged, overstepping, self-serving, and in-fighting.”  The solution is board development.

Board development is an intentional process that includes strategic prospecting, recruiting, and orienting for new board members and educating, evaluating and recognizing our current board members, coupled with a strategic plan (that is being followed) and the introduction of generative discussions.

Strong CEOs build strong boards.  As discussed in greater detail in the Innovative Leadership Workbook for Nonprofit Executives “the CEO’s role in board development is to understand the work of the board and its processes, and support the implementation of each. CEOs play a primary role in building the board. As such, they have the opportunity to assemble a board that can take the organization to new heights.’  ‘The CEO assists in building the board to which she will ultimately report and also makes recommendations, staffs board committees, and supports the board’s success.  CEOs do not have the authority to add board members.

In the case of board development, CEO’s should also:

  • Support the recruitment of potential board members; arrange and attend meetings with prospective board members and the board or committee chair, share the agency’s vision, mission, and board processes, including time, giving and getting expectations, and assess the capacity of the prospective member to fit on the team;
  • Manage the board development process, including spreadsheet of terms of office;
  • Ensure board training and evaluation.”

The most important thing a Board does is hire a visionary and talented nonprofit leader, the CEO.  I believe you need that CEO to (among many other things) build the board, and you need the board to (among other things) hire, support and evaluate the leader.  It’s a bit like two sides of the same coin.

Strong boards coupled with strong leadership can impact a community in a way that neither could do alone; and that impacts the issue, moves the needle and changes the world.  Isn’t that why we all do this work…to change the world?

The One Question All Leaders Should Ask

In Leadership on April 13, 2013 at 4:25 pm

At least once a week, I wish I could go back in time and apologize to a board or staff member for something I previously did.  I see my younger self in every client, every case and every workshop.  I’ve been working in this field for over 20 years and I’ve learned a lot of lessons in that time, many of them the hard way.

The thing I’d like to apologize for this week is not ending every meeting with every staff member I’ve ever supervised with this question: “Do you have what you need to be successful?”

9 words, only one of which is more than one syllable, and it’s huge!

Imagine the doors that one question opens.  It allows staff to ask for more information.  It allows me to confirm staff have the information, the tools and the resources they need.  It’s the question that opens the door to them coming back, and to me feeling confident they won’t have to.

It’s the question that allows them to say: “No, actually….  I don’t understand this assignment.” “I need more information.” “I need more stuff.” “I need more staff.” “I need more time.”

If you ask the question and you get an honest answer, you still may not be able to provide what your team member is requesting.  Even if that’s the case, they will feel heard, and you will know what they feel like they need to be successful, in case you didn’t know before.  In either case, it’s an educate-able moment to explain and perhaps negotiate a resolution everyone can understand, even if they don’t love.

Now I’m quite confident that even if I had asked the question, and even if I had gotten the answer yes, things might have still gone awry.  But I’m also confident it would have happened less often.

I didn’t know to ask.  When I was a new manager, I didn’t understand that there were people who wouldn’t tell me they didn’t understand the instructions.  They would walk away and try to do what I wanted, without really understanding what I wanted.  As you might imagine, it didn’t always end well.

I move fast.  You move fast.  Sometimes I, maybe like you, have talked in half information, which for most staff is just enough to start, but not always enough to successfully finish an assignment.  And I, maybe like you, have had staff that were intimidated to come and ask for clarification.  And I’m sure that I, maybe like you, have lost my patience when I thought I had explained what I needed, yet not gotten what I wanted.

What if I would have asked the question?  What if my people would have answered honestly?

Now let’s be clear: This one question alone won’t change the culture of an office.  It won’t fill the gap created by a lack of systems; it won’t magically transform a bad hire into a star, or turn a bad manager into a good one.

What it will do is build confidence on both sides of the table, build rapport, build a tradition of team work, and an expectation that your team can ask for what they need, and that you will try to get it for them.  It says “I trust you. I am here for you. I believe in you.”

9 words, only one of which is more than one syllable, and it’s huge!

What’s been your experience?  Have you ever asked this question?  Has anyone ever asked you?  As always, I welcome your experience and insight.

Board Development Done ….. Less Effectively

In Non Profit Boards on April 6, 2013 at 10:44 am

Earlier this week I wrote on post entitled  Board Development Done Right.  Let’s talk today about the other side of board development: what it looks like when it’s done…. less effectively.

In the absence of a board development plan that is being followed, most organizations do some combination of the following:

A board member or member of the senior staff meets someone in the community who they think might be good for the board.  They pass the name on to the Board Chair or the CEO who later meets with the prospect and may or may not invite them to join the board.  If they do, and the person says yes, they bring the name up at the next board meeting, and that person is voted upon and becomes a board member, usually but not always without an orientation as to what the expectation or requirements are of board leadership.  It’s a process, it’s not great, yet it is the process that is fairly consistently followed by a lot of organizations.

Will that process build a great board?  Probably not, but it works – to a degree – and it’s much better than the alternative.

The alternative is this, same beginning: a board member or senior staff meets someone in the community who they think might be good for the board and asks them to join the board.  They say yes. That person shows up at the next board meeting and is voted upon while in the room and voila! They are a board member.

Lest you think I am exaggerating:  I attended a luncheon not too long ago where I was seated next to a nonprofit CEO.  He asked what I did and I shared that I was a nonprofit management consultant, primarily working with organizations on board governance, executive coaching, system development and planning.  He immediately asked me to join his board.

As I’ve written before, strong boards beget strong organizations.  It works the other way too: less effective boards beget less effective organizations.  Those boards hire less talented CEOs or the wrong CEOs, for whom they don’t set goals and whom they don’t evaluate anyway.  They do not have a written strategic plan or a board development plan, or many other plans.  There is no orientation process, no education and no board evaluation.

Here’s the rub:  Board strength isn’t just an internal issue that is invisible to the community.  It is clearly visible.  Here’s what it looks like:

  • The organization has had a revolving door of CEOs.
  • The CEO has had a revolving door of senior staff.
  • The CEO has a very strong personality and does the work of the board, which the board allows either because they don’t know they shouldn’t or worse, because they are afraid if they challenge the CEO she or he will leave, which they don’t have the time, the inclination, the ability, or a plan to deal with.
  • The Board Chair has a very strong personality, and may also be a big donor, and other board members are afraid to alienate him.
  • There are quorum issues.
  • Board members tend to stay only one term.

Just because it’s like this today, doesn’t mean it has to stay like this.  Organizational transformation is possible and even probable with the right plan and the emotional fortitude to implement that plan.  Like any other challenge in life, if you don’t like the path you’re on, pick a new path:  Get your board together, or at least your executive or nominating committee, and come up with a plan.

Start by answering these questions:

  • Who do you have around the table?
  • Does everyone look the same?
  • Is everyone, in fact, the same?
  • Are there gaps in skill set, faith, race, capacity, interest, thought, ability, orientation, age, and gender?
  • Are there leaders in your community who can fill those gaps?
  • Who can get in front of those people, introduce and engage them in your organization?
  • How will you decide when and to whom to offer board seats?
  • When will you vote on new members?
  • What will you include in your orientation?
  • What type of evaluation will the board conduct of itself and how often?
  • What type of education does the board need and want?

Board development is the intentional process by which the board is perpetuated, evaluated, and educated.  Let’s get to it!

What’s been your experience?  How have you built a board?  As always, I welcome your experience and insight.

Board Development Done Right

In Non Profit Boards on April 4, 2013 at 10:03 am

The single most important thing an organization can do to ensure its sustainability is develop its board.  You may be thinking “No Dani, it’s staff, leadership, programming, impact or fund raising” and all of those things are important, but none of them can happen the way they should without a strong board.  Everything flows from a strong board of directors.

Strong boards set the mission, vision and values for an organization; they hire the talented and effective CEO and hold that CEO accountable for ensuring and implementing the strategic plan; they raise money, act as the fiduciary responsible agent over finances and programming and they set policy.  When it’s done right – like all good leadership – it looks like nothing.

Don’t be fooled, it’s not nothing and it’s not easy.

Board development is the intentional process by which the board is perpetuated, evaluated, and educated. It is usually stewarded by a committee that may be called Governance, Nominating, Administrative or Board Development, and helps develop an effective board through its two main functions:

Board Building: A diverse board of directors (thought, skill, race, faith, ability, orientation, age, and gender) that is passionate about the mission of the organization is created through a board building process. That process includes an assessment of the current board and needed skill sets, identification of prospective members, and recruitment and nomination of new board members.

Board Education: Board members will fully understand and can effectively fulfill their commitments to the board of directors when a comprehensive orientation, continuing education, and annual evaluation process is in place.

The Board Development Committee outlines what the organization is looking for in a board member by analyzing current board make-up and identifying future needs, and finding the very best person(s) to meet those needs.  In this identification process, the Board Development Committee informs the entire board what the expectations are for board service.

The Committee reviews the prospects and sets a target number and priority listing of those they wish to bring on at the annual meeting.  This list is presented to the board of directors for their comments.  Any concerns are directed to the Board Development Committee.

In the absence of concerns, or after such concerns have been addressed, the prospective board member is contacted, preferably by a board member, a committee volunteer, or the person with whom the prospect is most closely affiliated, who requests a time to introduce the prospect to the mission of the organization.

I do not recommend you start the conversation inviting someone to join your board, or even share that you are calling to discuss potential board seats. I recommend you say that you are aware of their interest in the population your organization serves and you’d like to share some of your successes in positively impacting that population.  (It may be necessary to assure them you are not setting up the meeting to ask for a gift.)  You can decide once you are at the meeting  if they are good fit for your board and if you should open the door to discussing a board seat; if not, you can find another way to engage them.

If you decide that you would like to invite them to be considered for a board seat, I recommend you communicate the time, financial obligation and effort expected of all board members before they agree to join.

Time is the principal commitment.  Board members should be available at the time the board meets and be prepared to meet as often as is necessary to complete the business of the board during their term of service. They should also be prepared to attend fund-raising events and to participate as fully as possible in developing and implementing the resource development plan.

I recommend you do not add someone to your board who cannot attend the meetings; either move the meetings or have them serve in another capacity.  Organizations can only carry so many members who cannot attend meetings and most organizations already have a few people who fulfill that role.

Another primary responsibility of the Board of Directors is to ensure financial stability. Therefore, board members are expected to assist with fund-raising efforts, as well as personally contribute.  The financial health of the organization depends upon people-to-people contact, and prospective board members should understand that identifying and cultivating potential donors is part of their job.

Prospective board members are voted onto the board of directors in accordance with procedures laid out in the organization’s by-laws, which in Ohio are called Codes of Regulation.

Once voted upon, new board members should be oriented.  I like to orient board member after they’ve been voted upon but before they’ve been seated.  The orientation, either individually or as a group, should be conducted by the Board President, CEO, or Committee Chair.  By the conclusion of the orientation, new board members should have a sense of the mission and programs, finances, fund raising initiatives, strategic goals, structure of the board of directors and staff, and their own roles and responsibilities as a member of the Board of Directors. They should also be invited to consider their own goals for service.

Once the Board has been appointed, the Board Development committee moves into its other two roles: evaluation and education.

Evaluation is the process of assessing the progress of the board and identifying changes that will bring greater achievement of the organization’s mission.  Evaluation is a developmental process, not a report card.

The Board Development Committee can ask individual board members to complete an annual self-assessment, including a section evaluating board process, which the committee will use to complete the board assessment.  The committee can then use the individual assessments to identify training opportunities, areas of consensus, and to develop a plan of action for strengthening the board.

This process can also include an opportunity for Board members to request trainings. Annual board education is integral to a successful board. There are a variety of training options, an example of some include:

  • —  The Art of the Ask
  • —  Board Process – agendas setting, committee, topics, strategy, structure, engagement
  • —  Basic Board responsibilities- fiduciary and legal
  • —  Board vs Staff roles
  • —  Best Practices of Effective Boards
  • —  Governance as Leadership: Fiduciary, Strategic and Generative Modes of Governance

I encourage every organization to create a formal plan to annually assess, develop and grow their board.  Strength begets strength and strong boards ensure strong, sustainable organizations.

As always, I welcome your experience and insight.

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