Me-Ruth

Ruth and I, Better Boards Conference, Melbourne, July 2013

Having been back in the country for less than a week, it was a bit hectic to then head off down to Melbourne for the Better Boards Conference, but I’m so glad I did!

The opening keynote on Saturday was from ThinkPlace’s Dr Nina Terrey on how design thinking can drive innovation. She talked about some of the challenges of our NGO environment, from technology and the demand for businesses to operate online, to our ageing population and the impact of this on our economy, housing, and family structures.

She suggested that perhaps one of the biggest challenges is how we (NGOs) connect within one another, and challenged us to consider how we can be cooperative as well as competing.

She then talked about how many young professionals are “mission-driven”, and there’s a trend toward social entrepreneurship in Australia. I certainly notice this in my friendship groups.

Dr Terrey did say though that there are no formulas or models that will simply help us deal with these uncertain times, but that design thinking can help us navigate the “mystery” of our environment.

Innovation-mindset

Leadbeater’s appetite for collaborative innovation

So where to start with design thinking?

Dr Terrey encouraged delegates to think about where some of the biggest challeges are for our organisations, and said to start with looking at the available evidence to help us understand “where we are” at this point in time.

She then said to think about what success looks like. Then how we might get there. Talk to stakeholders to understand what it’s like from their perspective. Do some interviews, spend time with those people, get some information. Then hypothesise…

Design-thinking

Dr Terrey’s “leading on the edge of innovation” preso

One of the other sessions I attended on Saturday was with Philip Mayers, Director, Dakin Mayers Associates, on the role of the nominations committee in recruiting the right board directors.

He started out by saying that one of the fundamental issues in recruiting board directors is that many are recruited through the “old boy/old girl” network. There’s also the “big names” syndrome, and he reckons these people only want to put in minimal effort on a board, and more often than not they’re doing it for the professional development or networking opportunities, rather than having a deep connection with the issues the NGO is dealing with.

He said that some of the biggest challenges for a nominations committee includes:

  • there are no magic bullets with recruitment
  • big names will not help your board strategically guide an organisation
  • recruitment can be a very slow process and it needs to be tackled strategically and thoughtfully

He suggested that the makeup of the nominations committee comprise: 2 senior board members, 2 externals, and the CEO. He stressed the importance of the externals in keeping the internals honest (if they’re the right people).

In terms of what to look for in board members, Philip cited the following qualities: big picture thinker, open-minded, non-biased, approachable, change agent, inclusive, think on their feet, team player, positive manner, ability to delegate, personal integrity, and has skills in board governance.

He talked about the danger of appointing young people to the board (eeek). The reason being that “board members need to have an understanding of governance.”

This comment puzzled me. Don’t young people have the capacity to understand what governance is all about? I sit on a board where there is a minimum requirement that 30% of all board positions are to be held by young women, and I can tell you, they discuss governance A LOT.

In fact, most of the young women on the YWCA of Canberra board pride themselves on their governance nerdiness. More about the Y’s awesome finance and governance workshops here and a good overview of Gen Y in the board room from Chris O’Neill here.

After hearing this comment I asked the other folk on Twitter what they thought about having young people on boards. Here are some of the responses:

todddavies “my experience as a Gen X is that boards can get stayed and dull without a Gen Y or two.”

Rebecca Vassarotti “I know plenty of older people with no governance exper. Everyone has to learn.”
Michel Hogan “because we need diversity on Boards as well as experience and also need to build future generation”

At the end of his presentation I had a chance to ask Philip to elaborate on his earlier comment, and asked him how he got his first gig on a board. He told me that his comment was more to do with “getting young people on boards just for the sake of understanding what young people want”.

He also told us that his first board appointment was when he had just graduated from law school, and he was recruited by his local synagogue – a great learning space for him, I imagine.

One of my favourite sessions of the weekend was run by Sallie Saunders from Building Better Boards, on “Assessing the CEO: the good, the bad and the ugly”.

The key message that came from this session was that a thriving NGO relies on good relationships, in particular the relationship between the CEO and the board.

She said that if you can be the CEO of an NGO, you can pretty much run the country. This was on the one hand a light-hearted comment, but when you look at the qualities, role and responsibilities of a CEO, they aren’t dissimilar to those that are required of a PM.

It’s no surprise then that she considers the CEO to be the most precious asset of an NGO.

Recruiting, developing and assessing the CEO is the only HR job a board has, and Sallie stressed that if directors can’t find reasons to support the CEO, then it’s probably time for them to get off the board.

So what makes it work?

  • keep board development and appraisal on the agenda – it’s a 2-way street
  • set targets for board achievement
  • talk about the difference between strategic and operational matters
  • keep reporting demands to a minimum
  • use the board expertise to add value to the work of the organisation
  • provide support and advice, especially when requested
  • avoid getting involved in staff matters
  • ask the CEO how the board can help (and listen to the answer)
  • the Director’s default position should be to support the CEO. If that’s not the position, then follow grievance procedures.

Later that afternoon there was a lively debate about the question of NGO board remuneration – “to pay or not to pay”?

On the affirmative team:

  • Victor Harcourt, Principle, Russell Kennedy
  • Dean Phelan, CEO, Churches of Christ in QLD
  • Christine Jones, Dispute Resolution Practitioner

Arguing against:

  • Brian Herd, Partner, Carne Reidy Herd Lawyers
  • Alexandra Zammit, CEO, Thomas Holt

The debate itself was pretty entertaining, but the thing I was most impressed with was the live polling and Q&A that was taking place via PigeonHole as the debate progressed.

The idea was to vote on the question of the debate “Should not-for-profit boards be remunerated?” before the discussion took place, as well as afterwards. The MC then compared the results to see whether the speakers had convinced the audience to change their opinions.

In the end there was a shift from something like 65% of delegates thinking that NGO boards should be remunerated, to almost an even split.

I really loved the fact that with PigeonHole delegates were not only able to pose a question to the panel, but also “vote up” other delegates’ questions that they really wanted to hear the answer to.

I think the inclusivity that this kind of tool offers is really valuable, because it means that people who may not feel confident enough to stand up in front of a crowd to ask a question can articulate their idea through a written submission. They can even participate anonymously if they perhaps don’t want the subject of their question to be linked with their organisation or board.

From a strategic communication perspective, I would be really interested to know why the BBC2013 team placed a much greater emphasis on dialogic and digital communication this year as compared to last year (when there was virtually nothing). I’d like to think it had something to do with the feedback I provided!

As Sunday approached I began to reflect on my time volunteering with the YWCA of Canberra. The last 12 months in particular have been a huge period of growth for me.

There are a few guarantees that come with volunteering for an organisation like the Y:

1. You will have the opportunity to work with inspiring, bright, courageous, like-minded women of all ages
2. You will be afforded opportunities to grow your personal and professional experience
3. You will at times, find yourself completely out of your comfort zone thinking “how on earth did I get talked into this?”

But rest assured, you will have the support, encouragement, and expertise of a community of women who want nothing more than to share your success with you.

This is kind of how I felt when Ruth asked me to co-present with her at the Conference this year, but I’m so glad that I accepted her invitation.

Our presentation focused on telling the story of how the board of the YWCA of Canberra developed its 15-year strategic plan. To put the presentation together, Ruth interviewed a bunch of past board members and the Executive Director, Rebecca Vassarotti. The aim was for them to tell the story from their perspective, with Ruth and I providing the commentary around the implications for the current board.

Typically I felt pretty anxious in the lead up to delivering this presentation, but of course it all ran very smoothly!

We had enough time for a 15 minute Q&A session at the end, and later received some really positive feedback from delegates, including CEOs and directors from a range of NGOs.

If you’re interested in checking out the Better Boards Conference as a professional development opportunity for your board, I highly recommend it.

There is something for everyone, no matter how “new” or “experienced” your board directors are, whether your NGO is service-provision focused, or an advocacy organisation, or how big your budget is.

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