Sometimes, despite having developed an optimal mix of skills, experience, matched personalities and practiced group decision-making, boards will hit a plateau in their work and their strategic drive will start to flounder.
When this happens, the leadership group might take some time away from the organisation to reflect, reassess and redevelop long-term plans for the future of the organisation. But sometimes a little inspiration is all that’s required – and it can come from the most unexpected places.
I recently spent several days looking after my friend’s two-year-old daughter and was granted some not-insignificant insights into some of the behaviours and attitudes that we shed as we move into adulthood, but which might in fact benefit our daily lives and return some inspiration, enthusiasm and perseverance into even serious pursuits such as governance.
Although they are often called the “terrible twos”, and I can certainly appreciate why, in these early years of their lives humans are at the height of their development and have an openness and capacity for learning that we never reach again. Their perseverance, ability to stick to their convictions and capacity for making the mundane more enjoyable are qualities worth emulating.
1. Enthusiasm and embracing new ideas
Life is exciting. Every day is a new adventure. Jump out of bed each morning excited to see what new opportunities the day has to offer. Two-year-olds have an unbelievable capacity to treat every day as whole new world and embrace it with renewed vigour and exuberance. Young children are awake to and in-tune with new ideas – if only because most ideas and experiences are new to them – but they have an enormous capacity to take these on board and run with them.
Two-year-olds might not have the experience or wisdom of their elders, but they do have an unbridled and unschooled enthusiasm for life and a lack of inhibition or concern for convention that can be vital in successful innovation and the disruption of old and tired practices. At the recent 2014 Better Boards Conference, keynote speaker Rachel Botsman presented on disruption and innovation. She spoke on the need to embrace not only new technologies, but also new ways of thinking about, pursuing and carrying out your organisation’s mission. Envisioning new ways to connect your organisation’s assets (whatever they may be) with need in your community may seem like a simple concept but it proposes actively disrupting old processes and ways of thinking that may completely revolutionise the way your organisation works to achieve its mission.
If your organisation is struggling to compete, consider new opportunities by working with the basic elements of your organisation or a particular service – your assets, your clients, your reputation and connections within the community – to connect need with opportunity and capacity in new ways. As we age, or as we gain experience in a particular industry or workplace, we learn how to follow convention and the well-trodden path – we are unable to look at things through brand new eyes anymore and completely re-imagine their potential.
2. Hold strong to your convictions.
While it is important to be able to compromise (this is a lesson that many two-year-olds have not yet mastered) and wanton opposition is not productive, it is also very important that you stay true to your convictions and be able to strongly voice your opposition when necessary. There is a clear power in knowing what you want and being able to say “No” and not concede to something you don’t believe in or that you sense is wrong or unethical. Once they learn this powerful word, two-year-olds will gleefully use it whenever they feel the need and confidently and obstinately state their refusal until gently coaxed down, or punished. As we gain a little more wisdom and experience we usually learn that simple and straightforward refusal is not the best avenue to take every time you are even remotely unhappy about something, but many of us also learn to quash our disagreement or doubts and trust those with more authority or a louder voice to take charge.
The power of a dissenting voice or an alternative perspective is very important in the boardroom. Just because many voices might have agreed on a certain matter, does not necessarily mean that they are right or that they have considered and rejected any concerns you might have. Board members have an important responsibility to act ethically, within the law and in the best interests of their organisation and its stakeholders. Individual board members can be held legally responsible for their actions and decisions – silent opposition will not protect dissenting board members.
At the 2013 Better Boards Conference, consultant Sallie Saunders spoke on the relationship between the board and the chief executive officer (CEO)* and the need for the board to be completely behind the CEO. She referred to the advice of a well-known corporate leader in saying that if you as a board member cannot completely support and respect the decisions of the CEO then you should get off the board. Either you can’t accept their decisions because you fundamentally disagree with them, or because they are doing something corrupt or illegal… and in either case you should not be on that board. With careful selection and support of the CEO there should be no surprises and you should hopefully not find yourself in fundamental disagreement with the CEO, but if you do, then hold strong to your convictions and either seek the removal of the CEO, or leave the board.
A board or board members with strong conviction can also move the organisation in a positive direction. A clear vision and strong conviction are required to feed perseverance in new ideas and ambitions.
3. Perseverance and persistence
Learning new things is hard. You are rarely good at them straight away, especially if, as infants must, you’re learning to speak, walk or read. But when you know something new is going to pay off in the long run, you should work hard for it and persevere through challenges, setbacks and sometimes naysayers. Dealing with failure over and over again is hard but two-year-olds are surprisingly good at handling this – yes they might cry or even throw a tantrum when they are unable to do some new task or activity, but with a little encouragement they always pick themselves up and try again and again.
Two-year-olds will throw themselves fearlessly into any new pursuit because they have an intrinsic belief that they must be able to do this new thing and if everyone else around them is able to do it, then there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to do it too. When we get a little older, we develop a picture in our minds of what our limitations are, and whilst we may be happy to try new things and have new experiences, we don’t often persevere through adversity to the same dogged extent that a two-year-old will.
Sometimes we need to adopt some of this attitude and undertake new ventures fearlessly and trust and believe that they will work. A number of aspects of the work of the board can benefit from this kind of perseverance and fearlessness. Business success and continued development of the organisation requires some risk taking, a common impediment of struggling organisations is a board that is too risk-averse. Your board needs to be instrumental in encouraging and driving some well-planned and considered risk taking. Undertaking new enterprises and taking the risk to do something new with your organisation and build it around a unique and marketable point of difference will help it to weather turbulent times.
4. Question Everything
As many people with experience of two-year-olds will know, one of their favourite pastimes is to ask: “Why?” And then when you offer an answer, their response is yet another: “Why?” Two-year-olds, and indeed most young children, have an almost insatiable curiosity and need to understand how and why things are they way they are.
Understanding why is a key role and duty of the board. They don’t need to understand all of the how of the operations of the organisations, but they should understand the general what and why of the systems, process and practices of the organisations. If an individual board member doesn’t understand something or is unsure about something, it is his/her responsibility to speak up, and to question what has been presented to them.
This is particularly important when it comes to financial oversight. If something looks wrong to you, question it, challenge it and work until you understand it or until the discrepancy, if there is one, is fixed. There have been a number of cases before the courts regarding a failure in the obligations of board members who have simply accepted incorrect or falsified financial statements at their face value, rather than investigating them closely and challenging and questioning inconsistencies.
5. Make friends (and network) wherever you go
Make friends and connections and build networks wherever you go. As board members you are ambassadors for your organisation and are in an excellent position to grow relationships and develop partnerships. 2-year-olds make strangers everyday, they laugh, smile and make faces at the man on the bus or the kid in the pram next to them. They can bond with other children over a shared excitement about ice cream or dinosaurs, the context and setting don’t really matter. Making connections as an adult is a little trickier, but perhaps it shouldn’t be: greeting others with genuine warmth and enthusiasm goes a long way. Asking thoughtful questions and being a good listener are vital. Find opportunities to network with others who work in the same industry or have a similar role to yours (the internet is great for this) and make a connection.
Mergers and amalgamations are becoming increasingly common in the non-profit sector, but partnerships and collaborations between like organisations working towards a similar cause are also growing. Strong relationships and understanding between all parties are the backbone to all of these enterprises. If you cannot see eye-to-eye with those you are trying to work with, things are very likely to turn sour. We can all take some inspiration from the unabashed enthusiasm of a two-year-old and genuinely connect with people and nurture those relationships.
While a little whimsical, this article is intended not just as an anodyne reflection on the artlessness of two-year-olds and how we can inject a little more vitality in our pursuits, but rather also as a treatise on why this kind of positive proactivity is important in governance and how it can help to “shift and lift” your organisation into the next stage of its development.
Next time your board starts to feel a little disenfranchised and its drive starts to plateau, take a lesson from your children, grandchildren or the children of your friends and embrace the enthusiasm of youth – don’t be afraid to disrupt old and tired practices, charter new waters, pour all of your enthusiasm and belief into this new path and grow your organisation to new heights.
*A video recording of this presentation is available through Better Boards Mentor.