Board members: avoid stepping in poo

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Governing is hard.

In a recent coffee chat, a colleague lamented about the challenge of knowing how to do the right thing in a challenging situation for an organization on whose board they sit. The exact quote (which as a former 4H kid, I love) was:

“I don’t want to step in poop when I’m not supposed to be in the barn.”

Like many board leaders, my friend’s service is inspired and fueled by their passion. In my experience, four kinds of passion motivate folks to say yes to board service:

  • Passion for the mission
  • Passion for the cause
  • Passion for community
  • Passion for leadership

While passion can fuel commitment, how does it help guide right action when faced with a tough or delicate situation? Thus, my friend’s homey colloquialism about wanting to avoid stepping in poop. As board members, we know we’re not to tread into staff’s territory, but what happens when we see things crumbling at the hands of leadership? What then?

The board’s sole employee is the CEO. Yet, what’s the board to do when that leader is out over their skis? Here are a few tips to know when to go into the barn and how to spot the poop so as not to step in it.

Navigating the Barn

1. Aim rather than blame
First, ask yourself, what assumptions do we hold about the organization’s health as board members? This is a great fire-starter question that shifts from the blame frame to the aim frame. It reminds us that we are considering the organization’s well-being rather than playing that dreaded character, “the heat-seeking fault-finder.”

2. Get curious, not furious
Next, circle up. Get folks in a room (virtual or in-person) and explore how the board and CEO are operating today. Don’t assume you know what’s actually going on before talking together to build understanding. Often, when there is confusion or frustration, it’s because we’re unclear about the assumptions we’re holding as board members. We start problem-solving without understanding the situation. It’s OK to look at the ugliness straight on. We all know it’s there. Shining a light helps everyone.

3. Prioritize relationships
Finally, focus on building (or repairing) relationships as a social group of people working in partnership with each other as board members and with the CEO. Even if the ultimate outcome is to let someone go, allowing the board to connect and understand how the group governs well helps encourage people to roll up their sleeves for whatever is coming next. Often, the result is rekindled trust, focus, and attention toward what matters most: meeting the mission day in and day out.

In this month’s newsletter, we’re inspired by the groundbreaking ideas from Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux. Next month, we’ll dive deeper into emergent management tactics, uncovering how these dynamic approaches can transform your organization. Stay tuned for insights that will help you stay ahead in the ever-evolving landscape.

Friends, for now share power, create belonging, and talk together.

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Hey there, I'm Kimberley

Welcome! I believe our social sector organizations are at the forefront of making here better. With more than 33 years of diversified fundraising and nonprofit experience, I partner with courageous organizations committed to building clarity and confidence. Let’s connect and chart your nonprofit’s path to thriving. 

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