No Such Thing As A Dumb Question

Excerpts from The Cultural Challenge of Board Orientation from Associations Now, a publication of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE). Read full article here

There may be no such thing as a dumb question, but new board members aren’t always trained to understand that. Orientation should cover the importance of openness along with the nuts and bolts.

That’s one of the helpful pieces of advice that comes from a new book, Engine of Impact: Essentials of Strategic Leadership in the Nonprofit Sector. In it, Stanford business professors William F. Meehan III and Kim Starkey Jonker address matters of mission, strategy, team-building, finance, and more. We’ve covered their research on board effectiveness and term limits here before, and a theme tends to emerge in their writing regarding governance—if the people you have on your board are incurious, or only narrowly curious, you don’t want them on your board.

That’s easier said than done, though, for at least two reasons. First, they write, board meetings are often structured in such a way as to close off conversation, not encourage it. “The agenda of a typical nonprofit board meeting consists of pre-baked committee reporting that is designed to preclude discussion—and, truth be told, nonprofit staff often like it that way because it keeps board members from suggesting ideas that might be unrealistic or generate unnecessary work.” A second reason it’s difficult is that board members may not be well-oriented enough about their duties to even recognize the virtue of asking questions.

[A] recent study on association board service by the consulting firm Heidrick & Struggles and the George Mason University law school, which found some serious orientation gaps at associations. According to the study, only 45 percent of board members surveyed said their organization had a “defined onboarding process,” and only 46 percent say their onboarding experience prepared them to be an effective board member. And when board members aren’t sure what they’re doing, that timidity risks spilling over into their decision-making. “When people are uncertain about what’s expected of them, they probably tend to be reluctant to be more engaged,” Dr. David K. Rehr, who was interviewed for this article.

The board leads the association, but it needn’t be expected to take successful orientation into its own hands. Ultimately, staff leaders need to establish a tone that makes clear that they are encouraged to bring their ideas, to ask questions (even stupid ones!), and focus on mission. “Senior leadership needs to ensure that each board member understands expectations,” write the authors of the Heidrick & Struggles/GMU report. “Open lines of communication are critical to establishing a culture of honest discussion and confirming board members are prepared and willing to contribute before, during, and after formal board meetings.”

The crucial question for those charged with orienting board members is: How well am I helping them do that?

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