Would you buy 30-year-old technology?

Saturday, March 3rd, 2012

The ad reads: “Car ‘phones. They’re no longer the privilege of the chosen few.” In 1982, I actually had one of these Vodaphone babies. I was climbing the corporate ladder of a Fortune 500 company in Chicago and got one installed in my company car. Yes, the company provided me with a personal car (every 50,000 miles I got a new one) and all the gas and maintenance (those really were the good old days). My employer was on the cutting edge of management effectiveness and efficiency. I was part of testing the technology.

My “mobile” car phone was the size and weight of a very large brick. And it was truly a car phone because the base was mounted to (and used power from) the car. I didn’t need to go to the gym to lift weights because the handset provided a good deal of dead weight training. Those of us testing the Vodaphone used to joke that if it quit working, it would make a great boat anchor. I’m surprised I never got whiplash from lifting the handset to my ear while driving. Okay, so yeah. If using your cellphone with your bluetooth is a driving hazard, just imagine how dangerous I was on Lakeshore Drive!

Now here’s what I carry around today: a phone that is not tethered to anything (except maybe my hand or earbuds). It’s about the weight of a pair of scissors and about the size of three packs of dental floss laid side-by-side. And it doesn’t merely connect me by voice-to-voice over cellular. It’s my personal data assistant, office manager, and personal entertainment center. It also responds to my whims. (Siri is my new love, but don’t tell my husband!)

So why do boards of all types and sizes still run with 30-year-old technology? Yes, the basics are still sound. Compare today’s smart phones with my car phone 30 years ago. Why would you choose to carry around a big, old brick that doesn’t do much versus a small, sleek device that caters to your every whim? Is your board functioning with a mindset from 30 years ago? Before you say no, consider this.  Nonprofit organizations proliferated in the 1980′s (Board Source, 2003). Much nonprofit regulation did too. Not surprising that governance structure, culture, and practices emanated from that period. Businessmen populated boards and they brought their management expertise to the boardroom. Unfortunately, management expertise does not necessarily translate to governing expertise. In the management mindset, governing is typically viewed as “management one level up” and tethers a board to the past instead of creating the future.

Why does it seem like transformational governance is still the privilege of the chosen few? Board members and executives, please throw the 30-year-old+ mindset out the window. C’mon now. Don’t say that you don’t know what I’m talking about. At association and nonprofit organization conferences, I still hear the same complaints that I was hearing 20 years ago. Here’s the chronic complaint: why does my board micromanage (i.e., get caught up in administrivia)? Because they don’t have anything more important to do. Because they haven’t found a way to delegate effectively and know their wishes for the organization will be fulfilled. Or, the board recently had a crisis that involved a major financial risk (e.g., embezzlement, lawsuit, the ED who was the “rainmaker” just left). The list goes on and on. People tend to revert to old, dysfunctional behaviors when they feel unsure or threatened or are just plain bored. Governing from this mindset is like picking up the Vodaphone and expecting to have Siri grant your next wish. Remember the implication when you expect different results from doing the same thing over and over again.

The magic of smart phone technology did not happen because Steve Jobs said, “Let’s redesign the Vodaphone!” The magic happened because Steve Jobs had a vision of something sleek, powerful, and ready to go to work for you out of the box. Why would you buy 30-year-old technology when you could have an iPhone?

Unleash the power of your board and explore how you can best use the collective wisdom of all those smart minds in the room. Don’t make them sit through one more staff report or approve one more budget until you think about why you’re asking them to do it. What is the value added? What magic could they envison if given the time?

 

A Failure of Leadership

Friday, 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.