Four Soft Skills to Improve Board & Staff Relationships

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Effective communication between board and senior staff is driven more by relationships and soft skills than tactics and tools. Your organization may use state-of-the-art strategies and technology but experience terrible board and senior staff communications. You may likewise have antiquated communication tools yet enjoy fantastic board and senior staff communication. So what makes the difference? Relationships and soft skills.

This article focuses on how relational and soft skills are fundamental to great board and senior staff communication.

Fundamentals

High-quality governance is expected in not-for-profit organizations, and one overarching fundamental makes a big difference when firmly placed in the minds of board members and staff. That fundamental is servanthood. The notion of servanthood expressed through leadership in organizations was first analyzed by Robert Greenleaf in his essay “The Servant as Leader,” published in 1970. His concept embraces putting others’ needs ahead of your own:

“The servant-leader is servant first … It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions … The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.

“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”1

Greenleaf further explains this idea as follows:

“A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the ‘top of the pyramid,’ servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

This fundamental concept involves more listening and learning and less talking at or past people. When board members and staff conform their attitudes and actions to a servant-leader model, communication improves. The minute one or both parties stray from a servant-leader approach, attitudes, actions, words and achievement of objectives begin to stray off course and communication goes silent, violent or underground—and in any of these three conditions, meeting and exceeding goals are very difficult.

Servant leadership in the board and senior staff context can be summarized in four basic ideas, outlined below.

1. Relationships

Servant-leader relationships are developed intentionally over time, and they should go beyond the casual “How’s the family?” interactions. This is because knowing a person’s hopes, dreams and motivations is vital to understanding his/her attitudes, actions and words. Crucial Conversations, the best-selling book on challenging communications, expands on this concept, noting that individuals must understand their own motivations and goals and then discover their colleague’s path to be able to effectively serve. By bringing understanding to the relationship—as well as an outward focus on others, additional time and more depth—you can build trust and focus on the task at hand.

All too often, people make inaccurate assumptions about attitudes and motivations when their relationships are lacking. Those misguided assumptions can sometimes distract or derail discussions about key issues.

Cathy A. Trower examines boards as social systems in her book The Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership. She quotes Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, who states that exemplary boards are “robust, effective social systems.”2 Trower speculates that if boards are social systems, they can be further categorized into levels of teams. She references authors Katzenbach and Smith’s model, in which the highest and most effective level is the high-performance team. In addition to meeting all the conditions of a “real team” (in which members are equally committed to a common purpose, goals and working approach), high-performance team members are “deeply committed to one another’s personal growth and success.”3 Deep commitment to others’ personal growth and success doesn’t normally happen in the absence of strong personal relationships. That’s the essence of servant leadership.

Here are some practical suggestions to help board and senior staff form servant-leader relationships:

  • In board development, make sure to focus new board members on getting to know the senior staff they’ll be working with. You can initiate this by circulating basic information about each staff member, such as education, background and family. For example, consider asking senior staff members in the boardroom to talk about a great vacation they had, a memorable family moment or a good piece of insight from a book they’re reading. This provides an opportunity for board members to learn about the staff and their families on a more personal level.
  • Make sure committee chairs allot time in the meeting agenda for relationship building. Some do this already, but an intentional focus will help ensure a consistent focus.
  • Create a habit for the president/CEO/executive director and staff to initiate discussions about the committee meeting agenda. Once that takes place, the CEO should then encourage the senior staff to engage the committee chair to develop the meeting agenda. In doing so, an in-depth discussion can occur that builds a relationship and enhances meeting preparation. In a policy governance context, this would be done when the board meets together as a whole, since there are few, if any, committees.

Help your senior staff and board members get to know one another. This will help your group grow into a high-performance team and foster a servant-leader approach to boardroom conversation.

2. Self-Awareness

Another aspect of effective relationships is self-awareness. Research conducted for the book Crucial Conversations showed that process-based (rather than people-based) changes in systems and structures to improve operations fail more times than they succeed. The authors concluded this is because “the real problem never was the process, system or structure—it was in employee behavior.”

Many times, problems occur because of an individual’s own behavior and lack of self-awareness. For example, an organization may have an excellent board evaluation system where feedback is pushed to board members, but unless members are self-aware and willing to hear feedback, there’s a limit to how effective the evaluation system can be. Regardless of how much authority the person giving feedback has, the receivers are ultimately in control of what they do and don’t accept. In cases where board evaluation systems are faltering, it may be helpful to train board members and senior staff on how to engage in productive feedback discussions, especially when the stakes are high. This type of board development not only will help with board relationships but also may be valuable to board members personally.

In addition to the relational advantages of self-awareness, there are organizational advantages. In his book The Softer Side of Leadership, Gene Habecker notes, “Leaders who champion accountability welcome others to speak into their lives and their performance as leaders.”4 Habecker further states that “leaders need to proactively seek feedback about their performance through practices such as 360-degree reviews.” He also observes that not all leaders like this process. Board members and senior staff who regularly take advantage of good feedback help enhance their organizations’ effectiveness.

Here are a few practical suggestions:

• Become more aware of your facial expressions. Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone present the following thoughts in their enlightening work, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well: “Who can see your face? Everyone. Who cannot see your face? You!”5 They go on to explain that people convey an enormous amount of information through facial expressions. When speaking and working with senior staff, board members should remember that staff members are watching closely and taking cues from their expression. This can get difficult for board members, especially at times when the swirl of complex board issues affects their sense of well-being individually or corporately.

• Become more aware of your tone. Remember the saying, “It’s not what you said but how you said it.” The part of our brain that “hears” tone seemingly turns off when we speak but turns back on when we listen, so it’s difficult to actually hear our own tone. Therefore, we must rely on the cues we get from others to tell us if our tone is appropriate.

• As a senior leader or board member, ask yourself each board meeting, “Do I need to clarify a point? Do I need to apologize for my tone? Have I left statements or questions unresolved that might create discouragement or cause doubt?”

3. Roles

Working relationships become more effective when board members and senior staff understand the important yet different roles they each play in the organization. Board members need to understand they may have multiple roles on the board. They may be a mentor and friend to the senior staff. They have oversight and governance roles as a board member. They may be major donors or have close ties to major donors. They also may be volunteers (beyond their board membership), assisting with fundraising or using their unique skill sets in areas the organization may lack expertise in. In these cases, the work should always be done under the direction and leadership of senior staff.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that inside the boardroom, board members should keep their “governance” hats on and not take on other roles that may be present. As board members communicate outside the boardroom with senior staff, they should make sure anything discussed is already known to the CEO (and the chair, if applicable). Almost nothing erodes trust faster than a board member giving directives or discussing work-related issues with senior staff that should’ve been discussed first with the CEO and/or board leadership.

Author Bob Andringa addresses this issue of roles in his materials on board leadership and describes three board member hats:

  1. Governance hat – Worn only when doing board work as a board member
  2. Volunteer hat – Worn when advising or helping staff in various ways under staff leadership
  3. Implementer hat – Worn only when the board has delegated something specific to the board member to accomplish as a board member. A specific implementation function normally shouldn’t be assigned by the board when it involves doing staff-level work

Audit Committee Exception

Senior staff need clear permission from the CEO to go directly to the audit committee chair and/or board chair when senior staff suspect fraud, other illegal acts or sexual harassment by the CEO. That line of communication between board and senior staff must be direct and clear.

Another way to promote open communication when the CEO is involved is to publicize your whistleblower policy. A CEO who regularly encourages whistleblowers to come forward helps establish transparency and honesty as cultural norms.

Here are a few practical suggestions:

  • Make sure it’s clearly established among the CEO, senior staff and board leaders that any concerns about the CEO’s behavior in the ways identified above can be brought directly to the board by senior staff.
  • Ensure audit committees have planned agenda items to review whistleblower and conflict of interest activity at least annually. Even if there are no issues to address, the agenda items should be present and the committee chair should ask for a report on any activity.
  • Encourage board members to keep any personal conversations with senior staff focused on relationship-building topics. If a senior staff member expresses frustration with the CEO, board members should cut off that conversation and coach the senior staff member to initiate that discussion with the CEO directly. For more insight on helping senior staff start those hard conversations, check out the earlier referenced book Crucial Conversations.

4. Communication

Once you set the stage for understanding roles and encouraging deeper relationships, then you’re able to engage in open and honest communication. Only when trust is built and maintained can productive dialogue occur.

Boardrooms can be filled with monologues. It’s a rare but highly effective board that regularly engages in dialogue. As board discussions occur, it’s important (especially when senior staff are involved) to make sure you’re talking with the board and senior staff rather than talking at them. Board members should engage in positive communication and avoid language that demeans the CEO or senior staff or depicts them in a bad light. It’s easy for not-for-profits to get pulled into a negative mindset that can sour communications.

Here are some practical suggestions:

  • As board members prepare for committee or full board meetings, when something seems amiss, they shouldn’t draw conclusions too quickly. Board members should ask clarifying questions of the chair or president—and do so before the meeting so valuable meeting time doesn’t devolve into untangling misunderstandings. If you’re the committee chair, you can ask those questions directly to the senior staff assigned to your area. If you’re a member, ask those questions of the committee chair, who will address them if they don’t already know the answers.
  • Lead your dialogue with reflective listening language, and do so in a positive manner. For example, instead of making a speech about how terrible the current financial picture is, say thank you for the work done to achieve the results, reflect some facts you heard in the report and then ask your clarifying questions. Do you need better tools or resources to hit the targets you were shooting for? How can you change or adjust processes to adapt to the environment your organization is currently in? Are there additional practices or procedures you’re aware of that you might need to adopt?

Conclusion

As stated earlier, boards are social systems. They function best when senior staff and board members are communicating effectively. A servant-leader mindset on the part of both board and senior staff is vital for effective communication. High-performance boards thrive when there’s interpersonal depth among board and senior staff. Board relationships and communication with senior staff are enhanced by deepening relationships, a better understanding of individuals’ unique roles and heightened self-awareness.

For more information, contact Nick or your trusted BKD advisor.


1 Robert Greenleaf, “What is Servant Leadership?” Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, accessed March 19, 2019, https://www.greenleaf.org/what-is-servant-leadership/.
2 Cathy A. Trower, The Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership: Building High-Performing Nonprofit Boards (John Wiley and Sons, 2013).
3 Ibid.
4 Eugene B. Habecker, The Softer Side of Leadership, Essential Soft Skills That Transform Leaders and the People They Lead (Deep River Books, 2018), 168.
5 Sheila Heen, Douglas Stone, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (Penguin Books, 2015).


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