Leading a not-for-profit organisation can be a lonely pursuit but it need not be. Leadership experts say board chairs, non-executive directors and CEOs all need allies to help them monitor and navigate the shifting dynamics of a volunteer board.
Increasingly, not-for-profit leaders are looking to organisational or executive coaches to be that thinking partner. And, with good reason. Organisational coaching is a practice that has been proven to increase effectiveness of decision-making, sharpen strategic focus, develop, and encourage constructive board leadership behaviours, and help navigate transitions.
Coaching is a strictly confidential practice. Coaches accredited by the International Coaching Federation are bound by a code of ethics which requires strict confidentiality, making professional coaches the ideal confidantes of leaders who need to keep board business confidential. Board chairs, non-executive directors and CEOs can all confide in professional coaches in ways they can’t with colleagues outside the boardroom, no matter how close.
Coaching sets up a more equal partnership than any other found in the board room. ‘First among equals’ is the phrase often used to describe the role of the chair but the fact that the chair is responsible for how the board operates, inescapably puts them above the rest. No matter how egalitarian, a board chair can’t confide in another director, any more than a manager can confide in a subordinate. By contrast, coaches enter a peer-like relationship with their ‘counterparts’ – the term today’s coaches use in place of ‘coachees’ – where both parties are equally focused on addressing the same leadership challenge.
Non-executive directors, like chairs, are required to bring an ‘independent mind’ to their deliberations, which makes it difficult for directors to support one another. Ronald Heifetz, the Harvard professor who minted the term ‘adaptive leadership’, argues that to be effective, a leader needs to seek out partners who can ‘go to the balcony’ and report back with drone-like perspective on the leader’s performance. He describes leadership as simultaneously active and reflective. Heifetz argues that it is the partner’s perspective that makes their allyship valuable. By being ‘one step removed’ coaches can be the partners not-for-profit leaders need.
CEOs can also benefit from organisational coaching. While team members might be close and supportive, the relationship is not equal. The hierarchy of the organisational structure puts the CEO above the rest, disqualifying colleagues as allies. Direct reports also have a clear conflict of interest. While a CEO might have (and should have!) a close and open relationship with her board chair, there are limits there too. As the employer representative, the chair is constrained. By contrast, coaches face no such limits and can work side-by-side with their counterparts to confront challenges and seize opportunities.
The roles played by coaches and their counterparts are executed in an equal partnership, but they are not the same. The counterpart brings to coaching the leadership issue or opportunity he would like to explore, and the coach brings the skill of listening deeply to what is said. The coaching partnership allows new perspectives to be generated, not advice. In the end, the leader decides (with the support of the coach) because only the leader can make the call. Coaches come alongside, teasing out options, evaluating trade-offs and exploring with their counterparts how decisions will be turned into action.
Beyond the well documented benefits of organisational coaching, some are specific to the not-for-profit boardroom. First, coaches can help leaders resolve issues before they become longstanding barriers to progress. Rather than tolerating ‘seat warmers and saboteurs’, chairs can deal with underperforming or disruptive directors in real-time rather than having to wait for the next AGM to recruit ‘fresh talent’. By acting, chairs might also retain other directors who are unable to cope with the disruptive behaviour. Second, coaches can help non-executive directors grow into chairs by helping them to gain better awareness. Third, pairing a coach with a board chair or a CEO, or both, can help the relationship flourish, saving careers, and the high cost of CEO turnover.
Coaching the board as a team
There are also benefits from coaching boards as teams. As Lynda Carroll, CEO of HR consultancy the Align Group writes:
An effective board works with management to develop an entity’s strategy, purpose and culture. It ensures management are clear on how success will be measured, monitors management’s delivery and ensures the entity satisfies all its compliance obligations. To fulfil this role, a board needs to work together as a highly effective governance team making high quality decisions.
A board holds more responsibility and deals with more complexity than any other team, but investment in board team development is well behind that of other teams. As boards exist to deliver on their mission, teaming must sit at the heart of creating better boards.
There is a strong case for developing boards as teams. Twenty-five years of research into high performing teams found that the indicators for board success are almost identical to the indicators for team success.
The common indicators of success are for both teams and boards are:
- Clarity of purpose
- Well-developed collaborative decision-making ability
- Group relational intelligence
- Attention given to learning and process
- Leadership and role clarity
Team coaching addresses all five indicators. Some examples of how team coaches can assist with success are; developing shared purpose, learning how to make effective timely decisions and drawing attention to group dynamics that help and hinder board performance. One result of this can be efficient use of time which can help boards function under time pressure. Unconscious group think and bias are also present in every boardroom, coaches can raise awareness of these lurking dangers too.
Coaching the board as a team can help individual directors raise difficult issues in a constructive way. This enables individual thinking to be heard in the context of what is to be achieved together. Team coaches work with teams to develop psychological safety while the team is doing the real work of attending to delivery. One way this is done is by helping a board learn which of their tasks and relational processes are working well and what needs to change. Understanding this can have a positive impact on trust and safety.
Diversity and Inclusion is a hot boardroom topic and research has shown that the potential for conflict increases with greater diversity. A recent Deloitte report highlighted that boardroom diversity is only useful when inclusive teaming boardroom behaviours are developed alongside achieving diversity quotas. A team coach can help develop those critical behaviours.
Whilst the idea of coaching a board as a team is a relatively new concept, it has already been proven to generate some startling results. One recent study showed that improved teamwork in the boardroom was found to be eight times more important to organisational performance than focusing on individual contributions. Ultimately, effective teamwork comes down to the quality of the conversation around the table, which itself is the result of healthy board dynamics. Team coaches can help with both elements resulting in higher levels of trust and efficiency in the boardroom.
Finally, Boards and individual directors are being increasingly called to develop greater self-awareness emotional intelligence, psychologically safe boardrooms, and director resilience. Coaching, both individual and team coaching, are proven pathways to building better board performance.
This article was first published in the 2022 Better Boards Conference Magazine.
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