Leading and Participating Effectively (Pt. 1 of 2): Eli Mina on 101 Boardroom Problems [and How to Solve Them]

July 24, 2012

Reading Eli Mina’s 101 Boardroom Problems [and How to Solve Them] leaves us with the impression that he has seen it all. Or, if he hasn’t, that he has the wonderful breadth and depth of experience to help us see the challenges of leadership so we can recognize and resolve them when we are running meetings.

Mina—a clear, concise, and thoughtful writer whose decades of consulting experience makes him a valuable resource for any trainer-teacher-learner serving as a leader within an organization—leads us through the sort of structural overview of organizations that help us anticipate and prevent problems effectively. He also, through his 101 brief case studies with summaries of potential damage and recommended interventions, takes us where we need to be with the best teaching-training technique we know: effective storytelling.

The structure of the book itself makes it an essential primer and refresher for anyone conducting business through meetings. From start to finish, in 10 chapters, he takes us through a variety of situations beginning with faulty direction and governance/structural issues within organizations; explores situations involving ethical and procedural issues; provides scenarios and solutions involving problematic board members, ineffective board chairs, and dysfunctional boards; then circles back to the larger picture with chapters on unproductive board meetings, flawed interactions with management, and flawed interactions with the communities we serve.

There’s a gentle spirit at play throughout this book: “Consider this thought,” he counsels us in his introduction. “Never attribute to malice what can be attributed to misunderstandings, a lack of knowledge, or systemic weaknesses. Even if you are certain that someone is acting maliciously, it is more productive to examine the systemic deficiencies that may be the root causes of a specific Boardroom problem. Only then can lasting solutions be found.”

Which is not to say that Mina can’t and won’t be blunt in his advice when the situation merits it. Faced with digressions that threaten to derail the decision-making process, Mina suggests that we be direct and use phrases along the lines of “‘Can we please get back to the agenda?’ or ‘We need to focus on the core issue…’” rather than trying to spare participants’ feelings to the detriment of a group’s ability to accomplish what it needs to accomplish.

The real value of the book is that it’s driven by a clearly-defined philosophy: “An effective Board generates quality decisions, together, and within a reasonable amount of time,” Mina proposes in words that can serve us well in any meeting, not just the board meetings which are the focus of his book. And he consistently guides us through the process of implementing that philosophy by returning to the need for openness and transparency in the way we conduct business; reminding us that mediocrity and dysfunctional or unethical behavior has no place in our decision-making process; and insisting that impediments to effective decision-making need to be addressed rather than ignored.

A particularly interesting and helpful remark is offered in the context of meetings where participants are seen—or see themselves—as representing a particular constituency’s point of view and therefore feel compelled to vote as directed by members of that constituency: “When it comes to voting, Board members should vote with the organization’s interests placed ahead of any other interests, even if their constituent units expressed a strong desire that they vote differently or even ordered them to do so,” he writes.

It’s through this level of advice that Mina provides the strongest guidance to any of us involved in accepting leadership roles within the organizations we agree to serve. He is, at once, reminding us that leaders listen to those they represent as well as to others who presumably have the best interests of the organizations in mind, weigh all pertinent information, and ultimately vote in a manner consistent with an organization’s mission, vision, and value statements; its goals and objectives; and the needs of those it exists to serve. We may not win re-election or reappointment during fractious times, but at least we know we met our greatest responsibility: to put the interests of the organization and its constituents at the forefront of our thoughts each time we act to meet the responsibilities with which we’ve been entrusted.

Next: Mark Samuel on Making Ourselves Indispensible

When Trainers Lead: Planning and Learning Strategically

February 19, 2010

Talking with colleagues confirms that those involved in workplace learning and performance efforts are often in a position of implementing what others plan and mandate rather than being part of the group at the decision-making table.

The American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) remains an organization where trainers serve as members as well as leaders, and member-leaders of the organization’s award-winning Mt. Diablo Chapter in San Francisco’s East Bay area are continuing to learn and lead and collaborate in ways many of us might not otherwise have experienced.

What’s interesting about the way the group operates is that it’s far from hierarchical. We actually function as the sort of organization which Ralph Kilmann—a writer, consultant, and former professor of organization and management—describes in his book Quantum Organizations: A New Paradigm for Achieving Organizational Success and Personal Meaning.

The group also, over the past few years, has managed to avoid the sort of cliquishness which organizations can fall into once leaders become comfortable an ensconced in their positions. With value propositions which include striving “to create a professional, caring, supportive, and fun environment which is rewarding to everyone involved” and a commitment to serving “a cutting-edge model community of learners valuing and promoting training, professional development, and workplace learning in partnership with national ASTD and other chapters,” the shared vision is as explicit as it is flexible. Which, of course, means, that it provides shared values while allowing the organization to evolve as the faces on the Chapter Board change over time.

Board members, with a commitment to having meetings serve as learning opportunities at the same time that they serve as opportunities to conduct Chapter business, last month experimented with a form of dialogue and decision-making adapted from an entirely different context. In that process, we picked up a new tool we can use in other contexts. We met again this week and brought more than a year of work to what appears to be a successful conclusion by adopting and beginning to implement the Chapter’s first three-year strategic plan.

The effort was far from easy, and it wasn’t always seamless. Initial work on the strategic plan  began during a Board retreat facilitated by a former Board member in January 2009, after a year during which basic elements such as the Chapter bylaws were heavily revised to streamline and facilitate the way we operate. The process continued as a few Board members who had completed their terms were replaced by colleagues elected to newly established two-year terms. A four-member strategic planning committee stepped up to the plate—two current Board members; the former Board member who had been inactive in the Chapter’s activities for several years; and a new and energetic volunteer whose level of engagement was so high that, by the end of the year, she had been chosen by Chapter members to serve as the incoming President-Elect (2010)/President (2011).

Strategic Planning Committee members returned to the full Board in June 2009 for a mid-year review of a draft-in-progress. We then continued working well into autumn 2009 to produce a completed document before the end of the year. When that report finally reached the Board for approval, outgoing members joined with those who were continuing into the second of their two-year terms to delay adoption of the draft until the newly elected members who would be responsible for implementation began their own two-year terms of office.

The 2010 Board began its year with a facilitated retreat which introduced incoming members to the Committee’s work. We reviewed and fine-tuned the draft-in-progress. We agreed that the rolling three-year plan would be updated on an annual basis so it continues to reflect the changing circumstances the Chapter and its members will face. Best of all, we had already begun implementing some of the goals and objectives documented—rather than established—in the plan. Which, as is probably obvious, suggests that as we learned how to effectively create a strategic plan shaped by two consecutive groups of Board members, we also took the most important step of all: we learned that planning and implementation can and should occur side by side rather than being treated as artificially separated parts of a cohesive, sustainable process.

Training, Creative Leadership, and Tuscan Evening Conversations

January 20, 2010

Trainer-teacher-learners never seem happier than when they are trying something new. Since repetition breeds boredom and boredom kills learning, we thrive on exposure to anything novel that deepens our ability to serve the organizations and clients with which we work.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that when you place workplace learning and performance professionals in leadership roles, you’re going to find people who combine their love of producing tangible and sustainable results with a never-ending search for new ways to approach routine challenges. Which is what happened again last night when ASTD (American Society for Training & Development) Mt. Diablo Chapter Board members held their first monthly meeting of the new year.

We knew we had to take a series of actions on routine financial and administrative matters, so we blasted through those items within the first 15 or 20 minutes of our time together. We then turned our attention to our continuing efforts to adopt a Chapter strategic plan—a year-long effort which is nearing completion.

But this was not to be a routine discussion conducted by a group of trainers-as-leaders sitting around a table. Because we try to conduct business in a way which provides learning opportunities for us, contributes to our development as a community of learners, and keeps our meetings lively and engaging, we decided to try something new—a way of practicing our ability to deliver elevator speeches (those brief and focused presentations which force presenters to effectively communicate in brief periods of time); we also wanted to be sure that everyone had ample opportunities to contribute to the strategic planning conversation.

The set-up was simple and adapted from something I had seen in an entirely different context: a conversation among long-time friends and neighbors on a warm summer evening in Vagliagli, a small Tuscan village in Italy’s Chianti region, many years ago.  In the original model, two older men sat on a bench directly outside the village caffè while the other men stood in a semicircle around them. Those standing men took turns speaking; when one spoke, he would move forward out of the semi-circle, closer to the two seated men, before making his point and then melting back into the semi-circle. The two in the middle occasionally punctuated this conversation with their own comments, as if to introduce a new theme into the chanting of a Greek chorus, then returned to silence as the others continued their discussion. I could see each man claiming the stage in several ways: the direct act of interruption. Or by stepping forward, closer to their seated friends. Or leaning in toward the center and extending a hand or arm as if to brush some air away to make room for their words. The semi-circle was far from static, and the connections between the speakers also appeared fluid. It was a dynamic version of engaged conversation unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere, and we decided to bring a variation of that Tuscan conversation to a San Francisco Bay Area meeting room on a stormy winter night.

It worked magnificently with minor modifications.

No one sat on the bench during our conversation or acted as a moderator; we formed a semicircle of equal participants, comfortably took turns—in a completely unchoreographed way—stepping forward into the center whenever we had anything to contribute to the fast-paced conversation. Within 15 minutes—more or less the amount of time we had given ourselves to complete the conversation—we had agreed upon a set of steps designed to produce a final draft of the strategic plan before our next monthly meeting is held. And we had fun in the process.

As we returned from our virtual visit to Tuscany and reseated ourselves around the table in our meeting room, we found ourselves in agreement that the experiment had produced the results we were seeking. It gave us a facilitation tool which we can use with other learners. And it had the added benefit of encouraging us to conduct business in a playful and innovative way where no voice went unheard. Where everyone contributed equally to the overall effort simply by adapting a well-tested method of communication into a setting that inspires us and keeps us engaged at the playful level we all cherish. And continues to help us develop as a group of trainers-as-leaders who depend on collaboration, rather than hierarchical methods, to make decisions on behalf of those we serve.

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