How to Build a Better Board

Could a competency model change the board-building process?

In my last two posts, I addressed leadership challenges in the nonprofit arts sector and some of the ways that boards fail to provide effective leadership. Now it’s time to move along to some of solutions to the problem.

The first thing we have to do is recognize and embrace the basic fact that leadership for nonprofit arts organizations must come from the board, not the staff. Yes, there are effective arts-sector managers who are also great leaders, but that possibility does not negate the fundamental task of the board to lead the organization forward — through pursuit of mission, through oversight of policies and practices, through provision of financial resources, through hiring and firing of the chief executive.

Many senior arts executives believe it is their role to provide leadership, and they manage to build effective boards to pursue their vision of the organization. Sometimes this works, but very often it doesn’t. Very often, board members abdicate their responsibilities and allow themselves to be led astray by a persuasive executive director. (See last month’s post for examples of how this happens).

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A new approach to board recruitment?

Only when organizations understand the leadership role of the board are they likely to devote sufficient attention and resources to creating and supporting a better board, with the skills and resources required to provide the leadership that is so desperately needed. This means more work on board recruitment, board training, board support and board evaluation.

Some organizations do a pretty good job of board training, with manuals and orientation sessions for incoming members. And some groups make a reasonable effort to support the activities of the board with staff support and protocols for board work. Some organizations have even reached the point of conducting annual evaluations of board members, considering if and how pre-agreed goals (meeting the give/get, committee participation) have been achieved — or not. But I would contend that none of this is sufficient unless we develop a more disciplined approach to board recruitment.

I had been struggling with how to do this for some time. Then I met David Bloom, who is board chair of Art Connects, a small nonprofit that connects artists and curators with social-service agencies here in New York City, leading to museum-quality, permanent exhibitions of contemporary artwork. I was providing some planning advice when David started telling me about his work as a human resources expert for Cambria Consulting and a specialist in competency modeling. Large corporations hire these folks to help them recruit and advance staff up through the organization, recognizing that specialized expertise is needed to hire and advance the right individuals.

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Competency modeling is not a new idea, but it developed a following after the Second World War. The story goes that US Bomber Command was struggling to determine why so many planes and crews were not returning safely after missions. Finally, the military hired an expert in competency modeling, who conducted a major study of pilots and crews, trying to determine what were the attributes, behaviors and characteristics of those that made it back. This led to the identification of competencies — knowledge, skills and personal characteristics that together defined success, which in this case meant getting back in one piece.

The result of the research was a set of guidelines for the recruitment of new pilots and crews with those competencies, which then lead to a significant improvement in the number of planes and crews making it home alive.

The stakes are a bit lower today, but why not take this approach to board recruitment? To that end, I’ve been working with Cambria to develop a research proposal that would allow us to identify individual and collective traits, behaviors and attributes of successful boards.

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Competency modeling: apply it to board building.

Our idea is to identify and recruit a consortium of 12 to 16 arts organizations that have a quality artistic product and are recognized for sustainability. We would ask board chairs of consortium members to nominate “exemplar” directors who should be recognized for their contribution to the growth and sustainability of their organizations and for their substantive participation at board meetings. Then we would conduct in-depth interviews with the individuals in the research sample, covering such issues as motivation for joining boards, the effecting of contributions during times of challenge, observations on productive and non-productive board-meeting dynamics, and their views of those competencies needed for highly effective board members. We would then analyze the interview data to identify competencies and practices that characterize these exemplars as well as the board dynamics that have contributed to the success of the arts organizations under each board’s watch.

Participating organizations will get a user-friendly, highly-detailed competency model organized along key areas of director activity, including communication, leadership and initiative; a roster of specific “best practices” demonstrated by exemplary directors; a list of the personal characteristics, defined in behavioral terms, that are key to their effectiveness as board members; and a customized interview guide for assessing prospective directors, complete with questions linked to each core competency as well as follow-up probes and an evaluation summary tool. Participating organizations would also receive a board-effectiveness survey — a diagnostic guide to effective board functioning that can be used as a self-audit and board development tool, along with a training workshop on how to use these new tools.

I hope that I’ll soon be able to write about the results of this work and the impacts on the sector. In the meantime, please let me know if you have any suggestions on groups that might like to participate and/or funders that might see the value in subsidizing the research to make it more affordable to more groups. Progress awaits.