I was two months into serving as the board chair when I met with a perspective board member at a coffee shop. He had declined joining the board a mere month before I became the chair and I'd heard such wonderful things about this prospect, I was determined to turn his no around.
After a few minutes of getting-to-know-you pleasantries, he pointedly asked, "What's your vision for the organization?"
I had been dealing with a few emergency situations since stepping into the role of Board Chair and felt utterly unprepared to answer the question.
I bought myself a little more time to think, "That's a really great question. " I responded, then took a deep breath to regain my composure and began by explaining my thinking.
"In our fifty-year history, the organization has always been run by a visionary and charismatic leader. And that worked for us for a while. But things have been changing a lot. And that model doesn't seem to match our current needs. At the same time, we were built by a community of 600 volunteers from around the world working together to turn a dream into reality. My vision for the future is that we bring the collective effort it took to build in the first place into the 21st century. I don't know exactly what we need to do to thrive given the challenges we are facing, but I believe as a community we can figure that out. So my vision is for us to be guided into the next 50 years through collective and shared leadership."
At the time, a part of me felt like my answer was a cop out. Leaders are supposed to have enthralling, bold visions. And I worried he would see my answer as a sign I lacked the experience necessary to really guide the organization into the future. I wondered, did I just lose this perspective board member?
Fast forward three years later, I had finished my tenure as board chair. I was reflecting on all the things we had accomplished together during that time and came across my journals about this conversation in particular. There was no doubt, we had shifted into a model of collective and shared leadership. We were now a high functioning board, with brilliant ideas being shared and implemented.
I expressed my sense of accomplishment to a friend. "Isn't that kinda obvious?" He said in response. "I mean, aren't Non-profit boards supposed to be that way?"
His words stung and I felt momentarily deflated.
I replied, "I suppose you could look at it that way. But to me, if it's not being done, it's not obvious. I could have tried to articulate some grandiose vision, but without those building blocks in place for us to operate together collectively, it wouldn't have made any difference. We'd still be floundering or worse, boarded up."
Bold visions as sexy. They are exciting and get people riled up. But without a solid foundation, they don't have the power to withstand the challenges and demands required to turn ideas into innovations.
Having the "obvious" stuff accounted for starts with culture and communication. It is important to evaluate how meetings are run, decisions are made and people work together. Is there room for new ideas to be shared and explored? Are there mechanisms in place to ensure ideas are acted upon? Do people only work in silos/independently or are they empowered to work together collaboratively?
Evaluating these needs requires looking beyond what's written on the website or employee manual. You have to closely examine people's behaviors. Shifting from a charismatic leadership model to a collective leadership model requires changes in day-to-day practices.
During my tenure as the Board Chair, we instituted different ways of operating, which allowed us to shift into a collective leadership model. We started by talking about what it meant to be a high performing board and defining the gaps within our current practices. From there, we changed how meetings were conducted. Our monthly board meetings became required instead of optional, were hosted by Zoom instead of by phone, and we disseminated packages of pertinent information prior so our discussions were more rich.
The board then created and assigned tasks to different working teams. Between board meetings, the teams made progress on their area of responsibility through meetings and independent work. Most of the working teams were responsible for long-term projects, so they reported back to the board regularly, indicating if they were seeking direction, input, or simply providing information.
These structural changes allowed for the nature of our conversations to evolve as well. Our discussions shifted from mostly transactional, Level I and Positional, Level II to Co-Creating, Level III. The three Levels of Conversation are part of the Conversational Intelligence framework. Organizations with a collective leadership model must effectively navigate all three Levels of Conversation. Such a shift signifies a change in dynamics from power-over to power-with. In Level III conversations, participants are exploring new possibilities together. One of the pitfalls of Co-Creating Conversations is all talk and no action.
Moving through the three Levels of Conversation is a fluid process. Teams typically engage in all three levels throughout a meeting. As a board, it helped us to have a shared understanding of expectations - who was responsible for what and by when. It was also essential to have clarity around priorities and challenges - what needs to be addressed, what information do we have, what ideas might we explore. Lastly, we needed boundaries to contain our focus and decision making - what values are guiding us, how much time do we have, what resources are available to us.
As a result of these efforts, the board successfully conducted the largest fundraising campaign in the organization's history. We created, launched, and expanded a monthly recurring donor program, improving cash flow. And we successfully navigated over 80% loss in revenue due to COVID while maintaining our key staff. Those are just a few of the things we accomplished through collective leadership.
These changes didn't happen overnight. They took time and consistent effort. What's more, I cannot claim responsibility for any of the solutions I shared above. Even the very process of shifting our culture and practices involved collective leadership! Inviting team members to contribute their ideas for achieving this vision ensured buy-in and follow-through. Everyone who wanted to participate in this shift experienced a sense of ownership in the process. And those who did not, exited (this is a reality of transformational change within an organization, and attrition is ok).
It turned out the vision I shared at coffee, spoke to this perspective board member. He not only contributed to the board's development but served as a vital mentor for me on this journey.
My own experience taught me a leader needs to keep the "obvious" stuff - teams effectively collaborating together - front and center. After all, it is the foundation for innovation. It begs the question, do you have the "obvious" stuff accounted for in your organization?