I’ve been learning more about strengthening leadership teams by working with not-for-profit boards of directors (including the one I’m on). What have you experienced with regard to volunteer teams? Join the conversation on LinkedIn.

When a non-profit board of directors struggles to be effective, the problem can seem particularly intractable because everyone is a volunteer. There is no financial incentive or work obligation to push people into meeting commitments, working hard, and communicating responsively.

We are finding that the part-time, volunteer nature of serving on a board makes even more important and valuable the work we do to help leadership teams function better as a team AND to help leaders leverage business agility.

Building an effective leadership team

Even more than with a business team, it can be easy to see a volunteer board of directors as a collection of individuals with particular talents who simply need to do their tasks, separately. And yet, as with all leadership teams, the group can have an amplified impact when they are able to act as a team, together, and can even develop into a high-performing team.

It’s hard enough to find the extra time for volunteer work. Improving team dynamics can make it easier to find the time and the energy.

Elevate recently helped a volunteer board build a stronger sense of team. Leveraging some techniques we’ve learned from Patrick Lencioni (Five Dysfunctions of Team) and Christopher Avery PhD (Teamwork Is an Individual Skill), we facilitated the group to improve their sense of team through the following.

  • We helped each member connect deeply to their WHY for serving this board and this org, identifying their WIIFM–What’s In It For Me, for this board to succeed.
  • We helped deepen the members’ connection to and trust in each other by having them share their WIIFMs. Thus, each member could see and trust that each other member cares. They don’t all need to care for the same reason, but they do all need to know everyone cares a lot.
  • Members shared with each other their Superpowers and Kryptonite. By really understanding each others’ talents, they can leverage those talents as they plan work. And they can divvy up work so that people aren’t doing what they suck at.
  • The board made new working agreements, so they can collaborate more effectively. They also decided to organize into subcommittees. I love that they are creating cross-functional teams, which work well because the whole is more powerful than the sum of its parts. 

I am the president of a volunteer board, the board of directors for Agile Denver. Two years ago we used these same techniques to reinvigorate a group that had started to feel stagnant. We were starting to have trouble making and meeting commitments, as well as failing in some of our duties to attend community meetups. To re-connect to our purpose, and to re-dedicate ourselves to each other had a huge impact.

We repeat the process, in an abbreviated fashion, whenever we get new board members. We use the occasion to verify that we’re all clear on the board’s purpose, and to update our working agreements. Avery has said that most agreements are broken out of neglect rather than malice; it really helps to remember what our agreements are. We help the new members connect to their WIIFMs, and share the WIIFMs for existing members, thus ensuring we all see and feel the motivation.

Leveraging business agility

When a board is particularly ineffective at contributing to the org, we’re finding that the problem is often a lack of clarity about how they are supposed to contribute. In The Advantage, Lencioni emphasizes the role of leaders creating, overcommunicating and reinforcing clarity in building a successful organization. 

Another root cause can be a lack of having the regular experience of success. Success breeds success, and a team that has fallen into a rut of half-done tasks can lose all momentum. The resulting symptoms look like a lack of caring, when what’s really happening is a lack of focus and motivation.

Toward that end, and like any leadership team, it can help to work together to better articulate strategy as well as to plan together the work they’ll do to implement that strategy. And then to build new habits around making work visible and demoing to each other regularly.

For the group we recently facilitated, we helped them write a Destination Postcard (from the book Switch, by Chip and Dan Heath). The team iterated toward a shared vision of what success for the year might look like.

The group then clarified what its keys responsibilities are, built committees around those areas, and set goals for each area for the next quarter.

But strategy without execution won’t win the day. So next the board members worked together to lay out specific work for each of the three months in the quarter. And they committed to that work as well as to redesigning the board meeting so that they demo to each other. The goal of demoing is to celebrate wins, to hold each other accountable, to get feedback, and to get new information that might adjust the plan for the next month.

For this particular group, the first demo was a little rough. A whole bunch of things changed–COVID-19 cancelled a key fundraising event, and some technical issues disrupted certain planned work. Still, the group started to build that demoing habit, and then showed true agility by updating the plan to account for the new information.

My own board makes work visible through a public Trello board, and most of our board meetings consist of walking that board right to left (meaning we focus on finishing almost-done work before we talk about starting new work). We’ve also started more often asking “who can I pair with on this”–meaning fellow board members or better yet community members. The pairing helps members build critical or missing skills. Plus, we’re trying to make volunteering/executing a more fun and more consistent habit!

How effectively does your board support your organization? Let us know if you want some help improving alignment, motivation, strategy, and execution.