How to create a sense of team on a national board

Governance, Great Leadership, Healthy | , , ,

how to create a sense of team on a national board
Used with permission thanks to GraphiteBP.

A CCCC member called me this week with an interesting question: How do you develop a sense of fellowship and team when board members never see each other? His directors come from all across Canada and the ministry does not have the budget to fly them to a face-to-face meeting. I believe in this particular case, the directors have never actually met each other and everything is done by conference call. So how do you help them become a team as opposed to a group of individuals?

Off the top of my head, I gave a number of suggestions and the member wrote them down and then emailed them back to me. Voilà! My first dictated blog post! Whether your directors never meet in person or they do but you would like to build camaraderie, here are some relationship-building ideas.

For both In-Person and Virtual Meetings

  •  Provide directors with a bio and photo of every board member. At CCCC we have a board website that has all this information
  • Don’t make your board meetings all business. Build relationship development into the meeting. It’s worth the time. You want directors to think of each other not only as fellow directors (a role) but as fellow human beings who live in a particular context.
    • Have directors share what attracted them to the ministry in the first place, and why they are still involved
    • When people travel to attend a meeting they have time to decompress from previous activities and focus on the upcoming meeting. But when it is by telephone, they could have just left one meeting to immediately join this one. So give people a chance to get their head into the meeting by asking everyone to share what is on their mind, how they are, right at the start of the meeting. “Where are you at?” is the thrust of this question. As they check in with each other, they’ll learn a lot about their peers.
    • Pray for each other. If everyone has shared what’s happening in their lives, you’ll probably have some things to pray for, either in thanksgiving or in petition. Don’t have one person pray for everyone, but the chair could ask Bob to pray for Sheila, and so on.
  • Give people a chance to share their reflective thoughts. When they do, you will gain insight into who they are.
    • I got this idea from the CCCC chair, Barry Slauenwhite (president of Compassion Canada). Have your board read a book together and then each director reviews a chapter at the meeting. They can not only talk about the ideas in the chapter, but talk about how it intersects with their own life experiences. At CCCC we reviewed a book on governance last year and this upcoming meeting the board will be reviewing a book on strategy.
    • Have directors take turns giving the devotional. You really get to know a person through the devotionals they choose to share.
    • Have directors do presentations to the board that are developmental or background in nature. They probably present lots of business or committee reports, but that doesn’t give much opportunity for their personality and history to be presented. So for board development time have a director research and present on some aspect of governance or the general trends in your ministry sector. Encourage them to add their own personal thoughts on the topic.
  • There is nothing like a hypothetical discussion to help people open up with each other. Because it is not a real situation, stress levels are low. Nothing is at stake. So conduct what Miriam Carver calls “board rehearsals.” Take a hypothetical situation and divide into groups and have each group discuss, “If this really happened, how would the board handle it?” If you woke up one day to see the face of your executive director plastered on the front page of a national paper with an unpleasant headline attached, what would happen step-by-step? Carver has co-written a book called The Board Member’s Playbook: Using Policy Governance to Solve Problems, Make Decisions, and Build a Stronger Board in which she has numerous scenarios for the board to chew over. This kind of discussion will be very different than it would be in a real situation. The benefit is that not only do directors have fun with each other discussing a risk-free topic, but they are practicing the skills that might be needed some day if the real thing happens.
  • Build a common identity for the group through the ministry’s culture and values. It is important that a team knows “who we are.”
    • Board orientation should includean historical orientation. History matters. It provides a sense of roots, a solid grounding, a context for where the ministry is at today.
      • So tell the story of the ministry’s founding.
      • If you can, document the sense of call that each of your senior leaders throughout your history had as it related to the ministry.
      • Examine the history of your mission statements and see how they have evolved, or not.
      • What are the big issues that previous boards have had to wrestle with?
    • What are the core values that the ministry stands for? How have these values shaped board decisions?
    • Describe the ministry’s culture. You can uncover the culture by asking:
      • What is the work environment like?
      • What are the attitudes that are valued?

The point of these ideas are to bring out the ‘person’ in the director so that there is better understanding of each other and some basis on which to feel a connection with the directors.

Face-to-Face Meetings

However, there is nothing like a face-to-face meeting to build a team! I was on a committee once that, like this board, had never met each other. Work got done but there was no spark, creativity was low and we just didn’t seem to be progressing in our task. Finally someone suggested, “Look, let’s just get together somewhere and talk in person!” So from all across Canada we converged and held a one day meeting and the difference was like night and day. The conference calls after that were different — they were more free and easy because finally we knew more than the person’s name and organization. We knew them as three-dimensional people.

So, a few final suggestions for building a team out of your directors:

  • Build the cost of bringing your directors together at least once a year into your annual budget, find an understanding donor who will cover the cost of a board retreat, or ask your directors if they would be good enough to donate the cost of travel.
  • When you are together, meet for dinner in someone’s home. About five years ago I invited my own board to my home for a home-cooked meal and an evening together. I thought it was a one-off at the time, but the feedback was so positive it has become an annual event. There is absolutely no business to discuss at my home. Directors come and sit in a relaxed environment, very different from a hotel or meeting room, and just visit with each other. This is when directors say that they really get to know each other.

Please add some more relationship-building ideas by  commenting! What do you do to build interpersonal relationships between directors?

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