Governance is a new word to many

January 29th, 2010

An acquaintance asked me yesterday what I do. “I work with board and executive leaders on a system of governance that helps them get rid of time-wasters and makes the most of the talent in the organization.” My acquaintance said that governance was a new term to her.

For those who are new to the concept, Tom Friedman offered an excellent quote in his New York Times Op-Ed column of January 5, 2010. The quote is “from Dov Seidman, the C.E.O. of LRN, which helps companies build ethical cultures, and the author of the book ‘How.’ ‘You have to enlist and inspire people in a set of values. People need to be governed both from the outside, through compliance with rules, and from the inside, inspired by shared values.'”

Sound like good governance to you?

So, what’s stopping you from practicing it? The problem I’ve encountered is that too often, bright and capable peoples’ skills and talents are wasted in board meetings discussing whether or not to purchase new office furniture or how many pieces of collateral were distributed at the last fundraiser. Discussions like these are about looking backward rather than creating a vision for the future. Discussions like these enervate, rather than inspire.

Are you tired of operating in a model of scarcity (not enough time, not enough money, not enough people…) and ready to move toward a model of abundance (stop focusing on the past, getting rid of the time-wasters and envisioning what you can achieve)?

Policy Governance® offers a system for governing boards to ensure that they are complying with outside rules and allows them to spend more time discussing what inspires the organization. Policy Governance gets the board beyond what is to what can be.

Democracy is messy

January 28th, 2010

Last night, President Obama said that democracy is messy.

Democracy is messy. Governing boards represent democracy in action and the complexity of the process of representing diverse owners. That’s why governing boards need every available tool in their toolbox. Policy Governance® represents the most comprehensive body of thought on board leadership and governing.

Caroline Oliver cites Couto and Guthrie:

“Mediating structures are a prerequisite to democracy. They preserve the liberty of citizens to act on public matters apart from government. They permit their members representation and participation in the sociopolitical arrangements of the neighbourhood, community, nation, or state.”

Oliver goes on to say this: “If owners don’t know what boards are talking about or why, if they don’t understand who does what and why, how can they possibly participate? Boards are key agencies in society, bringing democracy to the highest level of every organisation. It is their job to define and demand organisational success and standards of ethics, the law and prudence on our behalf. This is true board leadership and we need it more than ever.”

On a deeper, personal level, I’m convinced that if boards set a better example for governing then there is hope for democracy worldwide. That’s my mission. My theory is that getting the message to governing boards has the potential to create an accelerated learning track in the United States to better governance and improved democratic process.

Boards empower the owners to govern without actually needing everyone to sit at the board table. To do the job right, Boards need the right tools. Policy Governance can boost organizational success and the quality and level of board decisions. Policy Governance will not be the right choice for every board, but it should be a choice.

Policy Governance (PG) is a registered trademark of Dr. John Carver to preserve the integrity of the governance system, not for financial gain. Policy Governance is free to anyone.

Horse sense for people

June 11th, 2009

From Rick Lamb of The Horse Show came the following gem. People in groups have similar focus issues! When I read this, I thought that these similar things happen in group meetings. The job of a facilitator is to create the focus exercises that help the group stay on task.

With apologies in advance to Rick Lamb, I’ve inserted “people” words [in brackets] for “horse” words. Enjoy!

The world is full of distractions for your [group]. Getting [them] to focus on the task at hand starts with you.

You can’t change what goes on around you and your [group] and sometimes you will lose [their] attention.

Trainer John Lyons suggests that you have an exercise ready to work on, focus on doing that exercise, and be ready for a little mental battle with your [group].

“[Groups have a tendency to mentally wander. They distract themselves by mentally playing] a game. I bet I can make you think [I’m really very important because I need to be constantly in touch via cell phone or text]. No, no, I’m doing this. But I’m [not interested in this part. I want to move on to the next agenda item]. No, no, I’m doing this. But [lunch is] coming up. No, no, I’m doing this. But there’s a lot of people. No, no, I’m doing this. And so it’s just a game and it’s learning how to keep our focus on that game. Then what’s going to happen, the longer [the facilitator stays] focused, pretty soon that [group] is going to come right over and start working on what I’m working on.”

Avoid checking out the distraction yourself. It usually doesn’t matter what it is, and if you let it draw your attention, you’ve lost the focus game.

Averting a crisis due to lack of funding

May 7th, 2009

Those of you who know me know that I’m a big fan of Thomas Friedman. His book, The World is Flat” changed all of my perceptions about the effects of globalization on marketing.

Tom (p. 357) warns that “niche businesses can get turned into vanilla commodity businesses faster than ever in a flat world.” Companies must constantly assess their competitive strengths and make critical decisions regarding products or services that aren’t differentiated from the competition. Friedman uses the example of the Bank of India. The Bank of India was facing increasing competition and realized that it needed to adopt Web-based banking and become more customer friendly. The Bank of India did an assessment of its core competencies and decided that it needed to outsource data warehousing, document-imaging technology, telebanking, Internet banking, and automated teller machines. Guess who got the outsource contract from the Bank of India? An American-owned computer company. Hewlett Packard.

Today’s marketing strategy is knowing your core competencies and knowing what you don’t do well.

Why do I bring this up? Because nonprofits need to perform, as Friedman calls it, an X-ray of their organizational capacity — before there is a funding crisis. The Virginia Treatment Center for Children (VTCC) was created in 1962 by the Virginia Legislature to provide state-of-the-art service, training and research in the field of child mental health. When the state faced budget cuts and told VTCC they needed to shut down, leadership needed to come up with a new strategy — fast. The lack of stable leadership in the past and fragmented, functional silos within the hospital had caused the staff to feel “under siege.” All were doing their jobs, but did not feel supported by other teams or the state bureaucracy. Asking two critical questions was a brilliant move by administrative leadership:

1. What are the most critical child and adolescent mental health needs and problems in the Commonwealth of Virginia?
2. Within its current resource base, what should the treatment center do to most effectively respond to these needs and problems

Instead of asking “What’s wrong with this institution?”, the leadership asked for people to identify what was right; what critical needs were being met, and how the VTCC could effectively build on those services. The right questions were asked to affirm what was working well. VTCC also sought to stop doing things that it didn’t do well.

Overall, the VTCC sought to establish connections with other human services agencies to provide the services that VTCC did not do well. In essence, the VTCC created a network of service support for the community to enable the VTCC to focus on what the VTCC staff did best. Staff were educated on the opportunities provided by an improved network of services; and a framework and processes to enhance staff communication was developed. As Cohen and Cohen note, “In an era of scarce resources, human services organizations are increasingly forced to establish priorities. The treatment center attempted to establish a balance between responding to a small group of children whose needs required intensive intervention and focusing on enhancing the knowledge and capacity of the broader community through research, training, and consultation.”[1]

[1] Cohen, R. & Cohen, J. (2000). Chiseled in Sand: Perspectives on Change in Human Services Organizations.

Twittering?…follow this!

April 3rd, 2009

Terrance Barkan asks:
“Is ‘Social Media’ going to significantly change your organization?”
Take the short 12-question survey!
What do you think?

The results are provided in a free report to everyone that participates and the aggregated statistics will be shared publicly. Even if you are just thinking about social media use, the short 12 questions in the survey will stimulate some important thoughts on this hot topic.

A Failure of Leadership

April 3rd, 2009

Last week, President Obama spoke of a “failure of leadership” at GM. What happens to GM affects their employees, vendors, retirees, contractors, dealerships. However, failures of leadership happen everyday. A failure of leadership in my community last week caused poor and marginalized people locally to lose services. A private agency closed its doors to these people because of a difference of opinion between the board and staff.

Typically, agencies that serve individuals who are poor and marginalized because these folks are incapable of maintaining a permanent situation due to psychological difficulties; or it may be because they can’t qualify for other public or private agency services. Now, a service those folks came to depend on is closed. Disruption of services for marginalized citizens can be worse than not doing anything at all. All that leadership could say was that it happened before and will likely happen again. A sorry state of affairs, I would say.

The shameful part of this entire situation is that it could have been avoided. Apparently, a disagreement between the staff and board caused the disruption in funding and services. The board accused the staff of not providing information needed. The staff wanted to be on the board. Volunteer or not, as a governance professional, I would recommend that the board and staff become crystal clear about their roles and responsibilities. Marginalized people lost vital services that allowed them some degree of self-sufficiency because of governance policy, not public policy issues. An opportunity to re-start this organization exists in the form of an interim board.

Re-starting this service, the board clearly needs to have a commitment to the specific mission to serve the poor and marginalized. The board’s responsibility is to ensure organizational performance. When the former board didn’t deal with problems and differences regarding decision-making, the clients suffered. The new board needs to get its values straight. Decisions of all sorts, as clearly argued by Drucker (The Effective Executive, 1967, pp. 113-141), rest on principles and generic understandings. Without setting down in writing these principles of how decisions will be made, this board will continue to have difficulties. The former board got so caught up in an event-driven incident that they forgot to focus directly on perspectives and values. Therefore, organizational behavior was dysfunctional and the fundamental services provided by the organization were lost to those who need them.

What do nonprofit governing boards do?

February 17th, 2009

Defining governance is not easy. If you google “definition on governance,” you will find over 500,000 entries. Governance is a generic term with applications in information technology, Website management, research, corporations. I’ve found that how the term governance is applied in various disciplines is somewhat confusing. That’s why a simple definition for nonprofit board governance may not be enough to gain clarity and understanding.

For nonprofits, relating the process and practice of governing to a familiar or commonly shared experience helps. In my post “On board service“, I use ships. In April, I wrote an article for the Charity Channel Nonprofit Boards and Governance Review. In this one, I use the train analogy. It seems I’m attracted to transportation analogies when describing governance!

From the review in Charity Channel:

Executive Directors who dump a pile of financials in front of board members, expecting them to have the background and expertise necessary to make heads of tails of them, are not meeting their obligations to the board, according to the latest NBGR article by Sherry Jennings. Taking the point of view of a new board member, she writes, “Most of the financial information was incomprehensible to Martin. What was nagging at Martin was that he didn’t feel like he had a complete ‘picture’ of what was going on. The information he had plodded through last night seemed like a box of spare parts.”‘
In If I’m Not Running the Train, How Do I Know We’re On Track? the author uses a down-to-earth story-telling method to drive the point home and offer up the solution.

Caroline Oliver (brilliant author and consultant on governance) likens practicing good governance to riding a bicycle. You need to take the appropriate steps and practice to do it right. She said that the traditional approach to governance is okay but it’s a bit like pushing the bicycle along rather than riding it. Riding a bicycle is difficult at first. One needs to learn a new way of balancing and may fall a few times. But once one is confident and dancing on the pedals, it feels effortless and like flying (another transportation analogy!)

From Caroline’s reflections:
“Most of us want practical solutions and would prefer to skip the theory bit. However, the boards that tend to excel in the way that they practice governance are the boards that have an idea of what they are doing and why – in other words – the ones that have a good theory!”

I would add a good process and good balance.

See Caroline’s article on Creating a Board Dashboard, also at the Charity Channel and her new book Getting Started with Policy Governance

Organizational Culture: Open or Closed?

December 3rd, 2008

Culture in an organization is comprised of shared values, goals, norms and processes. One overarching theme uncovered in studying organizational culture is that leadership creates and reinforces culture. A traditional organization operates in a hierarchical model with an authoritarian culture that seems to foster privacy or secrecy. An open culture is the foundation for creating a high performance organization. An open culture within an organization fosters transparency and accountability to its customers and the public. If management doesn’t have a culture of open communication, then that culture suffers.

One of the best practices of high performance organizations is for leadership to nurture a culture that allows for people to question openly and have honest dialogue. A leader’s beliefs and values create the direction and the boundaries that people need to perform well. In “Good to Great” (2001) Jim Collins asserts, “good-to-great companies built a consistent system with clear constraints, but they also gave people freedom and responsibility within the framework of that system.” This is Policy Governance in a nutshell.

When organizational leaders have an authoritarian culture where people are afraid to question decisions, diverse viewpoints cannot be heard. When people can raise objections when they think they need to, it paves the way to better decision-making. If an organization follows Policy Governance principles, it will find that Policy Governance creates a “safe” way to have meaningful dialogue around an issue (instead of a personality), and largely, reduces organizational barriers to having the dialogue in the first place.

Warren Bennis is a professor at USC’s Marshall School of Business. Bennis cited by Koestenbaum, Keys, and Weirich says, “Exemplary leaders create a climate of candor throughout their organizations. They remove the organizational barriers — and the fear — that cause people to keep bad news from the boss. They understand that those closest to customers usually have the solutions but can do little unless a climate of candor allows problems to be discussed.”

On board service

June 22nd, 2008

Dear Association Executive:

Recently on the American Society of Association Executive’s (ASAE) Executive Section listserv, there have been many questions about how to get the board out of the minutiae in order to find time to work on strategic direction or Ends policy. The board’s focus on the day-to-day is not their fault (entirely.) Board members want to to a good job. But most have learned the traditional approach of board service — showing up at meetings, approving staff work and debating whether or not the office can afford a new copier.

When your board is busy with staff reports, committee reports and working on day-to-day operations, they don’t have the time to focus on strategy or governing. Board members come to your meetings with dozens of other competing priorities and thinking about their own business or family decisions. Once they get to your meeting, the agenda is full of operational (staff) reports or decisions. Is it any wonder board members default into operational mode?

Hildy Gottlieb at says it’s like running a ship. You, dear Association Executive, are the captain. You manage the crew, read the charts, navigate and ensure the safety of crew, ship and cargo. You make sure the cargo is delivered. The board’s role is representing the owners of the ship. The board decides what kind of ship, what cargo it will haul, where that cargo will go, to what customers and at what cost. They monitor performance based on how well you deliver. Too often, the board thinks they’re supposed to be captains. When you have nothing but captains on a ship, you have anarchy! (Plus, you sacrifice some much needed crew.)

The board’s job isn’t to run the organization. That’s what they hired you (the captain) to do. The board actually has its own job and it’s not an “extension” of yours. Their job (and their added value) is to represent the owners of the organization (people who expect certain outcomes or results.) This can be the community at large or a specific, defined group of stakeholders such as a neighborhood or micro business owners. In other words, they represent a subset of the community and sit at the board table on behalf of those who are not there. They are representatives.

My point is that, most board members don’t know that their job is representing and governing on behalf of those they represent.

if board members don’t know what their constituents think, how can they represent them? How do stakeholders have a voice in where your organization is headed? How does the board know unless they ask? Their job is to provide that vital link to the owners or stakeholders or their constituency.

Most board members don’t have a clue that that’s what they’re supposed to do. And, that’s what makes your job more difficult.

John Carver (author of Boards that Make a Difference) describes a traditional nonprofit board of directors as a group of competent individuals who get together to do incompetent things. Nonprofit board members tend to think that a nonprofit is a different animal than a for-profit. This perception is to the detriment of the organization. A nonprofit is an artificial entity created for the purpose of some pursuit — a corporation. The law gives corporations a great deal of power. For-profit corporations recognize this.

For some reason, nonprofits seem to think they have little or no power. Nonprofits have as much power as the board believes they have.

A board\'s job is to add value to the organization -- not run it
You can unleash that power by helping your board see a vision of what they can become when they’re not busy swabbing the decks and running the crew. Good board members are hard to find and harder to keep. Let’s not drive them away with mind-numbing operational matters.

Very sincerely,


Do I need a professional facilitator?

March 26th, 2008

Insights into group dynamics are essential to facilitators to successfully accomplish the purpose of the meeting.

Facilitators should have a working knowledge of organizational behavior.

Organizational behavior is the applied discipline of understanding individual behavior in groups, group process and facilitating individuals in groups to work more effectively and efficiently. As a field of study, organizational behavior integrates psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics and political science. As applied in practice, organizational behavior helps facilitators motivate and encourage people in the group to be flexible and innovative as well as work together successfully.

As a facilitator, I need to understand the principles and stages of group development to cultivate effective group process and decision-making. In some situations, the group does not necessarily need to become a team but some teambuilding is advantageous. My strategies for the groups depend on what stage the group is in – forming, norming, storming, or performing (see for more information). In addition, I need to observe group behavior throughout a session in order to create participation.

A facilitator will find it inherently useful to understand the culture within an organization. The organization’s culture is like societal culture and is comprised of a variety of things such as values, beliefs, norms, experiences, attitudes, artifacts (stories, rites and rituals) and patterns of behavior.

Functionally, organizational behavior becomes an organizational control mechanism that informally defines what is acceptable and what is not.

For facilitators, understanding organizational culture provides a powerful level for guiding group behavior. Each organization’s dominant culture is unique and can contain subcultures and countercultures.

As a facilitator I have observed that subgroups often form in a group that’s in the storming stage of development. This state occurs when members of the group find that they like some members but not others. The group is divided into factions. The storming stage is the most difficult stage to facilitate since it is full of tension and emotion. The best approaches I have found in this situation is to surface all the problems (get the “dead moose” off the table), create norms that make it safe to discuss the problems and encourage members to debate in a non-personal way. The worst thing is ignoring the situation, attempting to avert arguments or becoming authoritarian. The group will end up focusing its energy on being dissatisfied with me rather than solving its problems. I need to remain clear that I am not taking the group’s behavior personally and accept that tension is normal.

Again, I most often encounter subcultures or countercultures in groups during the storming stage. When interpersonal aspects overshadow getting the job done, I need to bring people’s attention back to process and help people learn group skills. I need to help the group identify their differences or issues and solve them together. I need to stay neutral and totally calm in order to best facilitate communication in this situation.


I use a number of process tools as a facilitator to create effective communication and feedback in a group.

I use:

The tool that I choose depends on the job at hand and the group’s stage of development.

I am constantly learning about group behaviors, theories of group interactions and group processes.

My personal vision for every group is to integrate the shared commonalities and align the wonderful differences within a group.

In reality, this is not always achievable but a purposeful direction is necessary. If I can at least cultivate a sense of shared group responsibility and move a group toward the collaborative or performing stage, I believe I am successful.