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​Priority Setting for Boards: Exploring the Three Connections Part II

​By Tom Adams, Director, Succession and Sustainability

Last month, Raffa offered readers a fresh way to look at board leadership (click here for part I of this article). We suggested an alternative, which focuses on how your organization is preparing for, and responding to, big organizational and leadership transitions. Reflecting on life in any organization, there is (or will be) a planned or unplanned leadership change. There may also be a need to rethink strategic direction, programs and perhaps leadership and staffing. The following article, Part II of Priority Setting for Boards, Broadening the Lens, offers board leaders a simple way to explore what kind of leadership or organizational change might be approaching and how to use this opportunity to increase mission impact. Proactively exploring the connections outlined below helps boards avoid two risks: 1) sleep walking through or under-attending to an opportunity that advances mission or 2) not being prepared when a big change opportunity occurs. In a more positive light, isn’t it more fun to build competency in making the most of transitions than having the transitions overwhelm the organization or detract from mission? What follows provides a framework to invite your board into a conversation about what leadership or organizational transitions are most likely ahead and how might the board and organization prepare so as to use these changes to deliver more to those our mission serves.

Raffa’s experience working with boards through leadership and organizational transition suggests three important connections for boards to regularly examine. These three connections (or pivots), recommended for board discussion regularly each year, are described below and include: 1) The Connection between Mission, Results and Strategy; 2) The Connection between Leadership and Results; and 3) The Connection between Infrastructure and Systems and Strategy Success.

The following short descriptions and examples are offered to encourage you to have a conversation with your board leaders about leadership and organizational transitions. How well do you pay attention? Which of the three possibilities below (or some different combination unique to you) is your first priority for attention and action?

  1. The Connection between Mission, Results and Strategy
    You might have heard the old saying: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will do.” For organizational leaders, how we define mission and the results desired to achieve mission are critical. The rate of change in government policy, funding, and community needs greatly increase odds that the connection between mission and results will need to be frequently revisited.  Board leaders are often asking themselves what has changed that causes us to reconsider our historical or current focus and how we define success. Once leaders can simply and clearly say what we are trying to do and how we will know we are making progress we can take a look at what we are doing to get these results. Does our strategy still work? Are there new players, regulations or technology which might cause us to rethink how we carry out our mission? What partnerships or collaborations might be relevant to better achieving the results we seek? What else do we need to do differently? What organizational pivot(s) or transition(s) should we consider and why?
    Example: A number of leading food banks have shifted their focus from exclusively providing food to the hungry to their broader mission of reducing and eliminating  hunger through attention to underlying factors tied to poverty including  education, health services, and employment. This pivot requires more attention to advocacy, collaborative efforts to reduce hunger’s causes and therefore a different measure of results as well as ultimately additional skills on the board and staff.  Research by the Foraker Group, a management support organization serving the nonprofits of Alaska, points to the importance of collaboration and strategic partnerships to secure long-term organizational sustainability.
  2. The Connection Between Leadership
    Our approach to leader recruitment, leader development and leader transitions and our beliefs about who leads - to our strategy and results.
    Leadership matters. Well-led organizations out perform those where leaders come and go with little connection and impact. Defining what it means to be well-led is an important first step. Boards often assume everyone knows what leadership is, does and looks like. Too often, a deeper examination reveals a wide range of opinions and perhaps an underlying or unconscious belief that leaders look and behave like themselves. Over reliance on a few “hero” leaders too often creates unhealthy dependence. Intentionally investing in defining the leader skills needed, recruiting leaders with those skills, and supporting board and staff in continuing to grow as leaders supports success in strategic initiatives and mission impact. Leader transitions are inevitable. Preparing for them through succession planning and learning the difference between transition and search enhances the organization’s health and sustainability.
    Example: Services to individuals with intellectual developmental disabilities have grown significantly over the past several decades. This is the result of parents advocating for their children and starting organizations. As these organizations evolved, many have needed to pivot from over reliance on the founding parents and staff to building a team of leaders who can adapt to the many changes in services. These organizations are investing in leader development, succession planning and being intentional as they move from founder leaders to next generation.
  3. The connection between how well our infrastructure and systems support leadership and strategy success
    The 2008-2009 Recession forced most organizations to revisit how they obtained the funds to carry out their mission. Initially, financial sustainability and mission impact were looked at together. CompassPoint wrote about “the double bottom line “– mission and income/profit.  This focus on organizational sustainability has broadened over recent years and brought increased attention to how well the systems and infrastructure serve the organization. Too many organizations report funding crises without the accounting and financial management system to really assess their financial position. Outdated technology limits the capacity of organizations to communicate and reach stakeholders. No longer can leaders ignore the connections between systems, strategies and successful impact. Leaders who ignore systems issues put their organization at risk. In some circumstances, it is impossible to know what leadership and organizational transition to pay attention to because of a lack of good information. In that case, the organizational and leader transition is the pivot to assessing and increasing investment in the systems.
    Example: A small trade association had an entrepreneurial executive who over four years greatly expanded the organization’s members, connections and impact. The organization had a very successful and long history. Until this executive came, the organization had been on a five year slide with three executives. She was a very successful turn-around executive. However, when she left the organization the board discovered she was keeping the financials and member data base on her lap top. There were no systems. The next executive spent two years rebuilding the systems and lost a great deal of the momentum achieved under his predecessor.

Think about boards you have been on. How did attention (or lack thereof) to these leader and organizational transition issues impact the organization? Most reflections of this kind show both the pain and promise of increased attention to leadership and organizational transition.  What do you have to lose by exploring the three connections above and seeing where the fertile ground might be for your organization?

Tom Adams is a director of Succession and Sustainability for Raffa and the author of The Nonprofit Leadership Transition and Development Guide available from Amazon.

For more on board leadership, look for Raffa’s September podcast on How Boards Prepare for Leadership Transitions. For more information on Raffa’s leadership and organizational transition services, contact Karen Schuler at kschuler@raffa.com.