Issue No. 352 of Your Weekly Staff Meeting features two thin books on board governance—the perfect size to inspire your board and educate your staff. And for the record—this is NOT fake news! Plus, this reminder: click here to check out my 20 management buckets (core competencies).
A Contrarian's Wisdom: Called to Serve
I tilt towards books that lean towards the contrarian quadrant. Example: former USC President Steven Sample's book, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership. Before buying a book, he prefers a five-minute conversation with someone who has already read it.
So when I had a five-minute conversation with consultant and author Dave Coleman about Max De Pree’s 91-page contrarian gem, it fed my board governance book-addicted soul. I love this book and the title: Called to Serve: Creating and Nurturing the Effective Volunteer Board.
Contrarian Max De Pree writes:
• “There is a reason why this is a small book. We want it to be useful, but not a burden.”
• “We believe good people need reminders and an occasional nudge, not a sermon.”
• “A good board will measure the appropriate inputs as well as the outputs. Failure to measure what matters damages our future.”
• “My friend Jim Beré…once told me that he would serve only on boards that had hard-working executive committees.”
Commenting on board committees, De Pree notes the story of the English visitor who watched his first American football game and observed, “The game combines the two worst elements of American culture—violence and committee meetings.”
Rather than penning a 300-page snoozer, De Pree crafts a coaching conversation (a series of letters) with a young leader and his first CEO/board relationship. It’s easy reading and the short epistles are extraordinary.
Board service, writes De Pree, should be “demanding in the best sense of the word.” He lists three other characteristics of great boards:
• Fun to serve on
CEOs will appreciate every page: “…the chief responsibility of boards is to be effective on behalf of the organization.” He adds, “Effective boards, in a nutshell:
• remember the long view,
• remember that the president and staff are human,
• and do the work of the board…”
• Plus this: “Most of the work of the board takes place through the implementation of an agenda.”
More contrarian pokes-in-the-ribs:
• “Many high-priced consultants will tell you to have the shortest possible mission statement. I don’t happen to think that is such a great idea.”
• “I feel that the closer an organization comes to being defined as a movement, the closer it will come to fulfilling its potential.”
• “I’m a great believer that management should be invited into the board’s world but that the board should not go into management’s area.”
• “The chairperson should not permit anyone to read to the board.”
Max De Pree served as board chair of Fuller Seminary—and get this—the seminary honored him with the establishment of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership in 1996. His day job was with Herman Miller, the office furniture company, where he served as president from 1980 to 1987 (and as a board member until 1995). His book, Leadership Is an Art, has sold more than 800,000 copies. (See also Leading Without Power: Finding Hope in Serving Community.)
Effective boards do very good planning, says De Pree. He lists three planning questions and then suggests who must be involved in the planning. “…some people need to be involved, to be blunt, because they are going to pay the bill.”
He balances the CFO’s involvement in planning with this: “Planning by the board ought always to include the chief financial officer, a bringer of necessary reality to the process. Of course, the chief financial officer should never have a role that stymies the vision. Some realities have priority over numbers.”
Oh, my—I could fill a year’s worth of eNewsletters with his contrarian coaching!
• “Loyalty by itself is never sufficient. You always have to link loyalty and competence.”
• “When an organization demands true leadership and the results justify the time and energy, good boards respond with gusto.”
• “Another crime, it seems to me, is to give really good people poor leadership.”
Trust me—this book will not disappoint. All 91 pages are packed with power. Perfect snippets for your “10 Minutes for Governance” segment at every board meeting. (You do that, right?) I’ll close with a story.
Addressing the importance of creating time in the agenda for board reflection, he writes, “I remember the story, perhaps apocryphal, about President Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles. Dulles was an inveterate traveler. He seemed to be on the go continuously. At one point during the discussion of a serious problem, President Eisenhower said to him, ‘Don’t just do something, stand there.’ Sometimes it’s easier to be busy than to take the time to be reflective.”
To order from Amazon, click on the title for Called to Serve: Creating and Nurturing the Effective Volunteer Board, by Max De Pree.
Your Weekly Staff Meeting Questions:
1) Max De Pree writes, “…a board can be only as good as management will help it become.” So how effective is your organization’s CEO and senior team in helping the board be effective—without inappropriately doing the board’s work?
2) De Pree recommends that “Key proposals and issues like building programs or fund drives should always come to the board through its committees at least twice.” Think back for three years—has this been your practice?
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The Board Bucket, Chapter 14, in Mastering the Management Buckets, reminds you that board service can be joyful—but it’s often hard, hard work. This year Eugene H. Fram (with Vicki Brown) added another tool to the governance toolbox with a very helpful (yet thin) book, Going for Impact: The Nonprofit Director’s Essential Guidebook.
Chapter 1, “Be Aware of Rose-Colored Glasses,” will get your attention! Fram writes, “When you hear any of these commonly voiced assertions, look beyond surface realities.” His favorite five:
1. “Our board is doing a great job!
2. We have no worries—we have (or just hired) a great CEO!
3. When push comes to shove, our board can raise big $$!
4. Our programs are superior to other similar nonprofits!
5. Our board of directors is like a family!”
On “family,” he adds: “Remind yourself that families don't typically meet once a month, serve specific terms, or weigh whether to resign when faced with over-whelming work/personal pressures. A nonprofit board is not a family and shouldn't aspire to be one.”
Delegate your board reading and invite several board members to read Called to Serve and/or Going for Impact and give 5-minute reviews at your next meeting. Going for Impact (just 121 pages) is a helpful companion to Fram’s 2011 book, Policy vs. Paper Clips: How Using the Corporate Model Makes a Nonprofit Board More Efficient & Effective (3rd Edition).
If your board has already read the above governance books, more options are listed on the Board Bucket webpage and more insight at the ECFA governance blog here.
P.S. Read John’s recent blog on board governance, "Beware the Emotional Effects of Transitions."
Your Weekly Staff Meeting is emailed free two to four times a month to subscribers, the frequency of which is based on an algorithm of book length, frequent flyer miles, and client deadlines. We do not accept any form of compensation from authors or publishers for book reviews. As a board member and raving fan of Christian Community Credit Union (a non-profit), we proudly list the credit union as a sponsor at no charge.