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?

 

On board service

Sunday, 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 Help4Nonprofits.com 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,

Sherry