October 17, 2018

Priority Setting for Boards – Broadening the Lens

Priority Setting for Boards – Broadening the Lens

Board leaders are stretched in many different and competing directions. Like any responsibility, it takes time to fully understand the choices and get comfortable with the board leaders’ role. Board literature provides broad guidance and Board Source provides a number of helpful guides, including Ten Basic Responsibilities and Checklist of Board Roles and Responsibilities.

These publications provide a very helpful framework for any board member. However in the challenging world of board leadership today, an additional lens is important and in many cases critical.

This article suggests that attention to the big pivots or changes that happen much more regularly is an important focus for board and CEO priority setting. More specifically, our experience conclusively shows the benefits that occur when boards and their CEO proactively and regularly pay attention to leadership and organizational transitions. These important organizational pivots provide a powerful lens for board leaders to observe the organization and decide on focus. Leaders want to know: “What is the best use of our time and talent on this board?” Today’s turbulent times demands new approaches to how boards decide on their focus.

The Nonprofit Quarterly in March 2017 hosted a webinar describing how the field of leader and organizational transitions has evolved over the past two decades. Building on investments led by the W. K. Kellogg and Annie E. Casey Foundations in reducing the pain and uncertainty of executive transitions, leading organizations are paying attention to a broader range of leader and organizational pivots or transitions. The broader lens affirms the importance of executive transition while more systematically connecting it with the ongoing duties of attention to leader development and succession as well as organizational and mission sustainability.

Leadership transitions include planned and unplanned departures of CEOs, managers, key staff and key board leaders. You probably know an organization or two that struggled because of an inability to handle leader transitions well. Enhancing attention to leader development and succession is a major pivot for many organizations. Going beyond check the box lip service to succession planning involves commitment and pays off. Equally important to a broader-review of leadership transitions are how current practices support or impede the organizations to engage a diverse and inclusive board and staff as well as fresh approaches to how leadership is shared.

Organizational transitions generally involve a change in order to carry out mission. This big pivot or change may be the result of loss of ground to new competitors or its opposite – new opportunities emerging from a decision to enter a partnership/collaborative or to merge with another organization. Again most readers know of several organizations that ignored the signs that change was needed for too long and are now either out of business or have less impact in the community. Strategy changes as well as efforts to update systems and infrastructure may also require an organizational pivot to make the impact on mission more sustainable.

As part of the March NPQ webinar, Jeanne Bell, CEO of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, challenged boards and leaders to an expanded view of leadership and organizational transitions. She advocated that this broader look include attention to the lack of progress on diversity and inclusiveness in nonprofit leadership. She also promoted the option of new approaches to shared leadership which moves beyond over-reliance on one or two hero/heroine leaders. These challenges are deep-seated, systemic and rooted in the larger culture. Progress requires heightened attention to leadership and organizational transitions. CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and Marcum provided the content for this workshop based on research and writing on these topics completed earlier this year in The Evolution of Executive Transition and Allied Practices.

Think about boards you have served. How did attention (or lack thereof) to these issues of leader and organizational transition impact the organization? Most reflections of this kind show both the pain and promise of increased attention to leadership and organizational transition. Consider initiating a conversation with your CEO and board about the big transitions your organization is or may confront soon.

Related Industry

Nonprofit & Social Sector