Selecting and Developing Board Leadership: Choose Your Leaders Wisely

This article was originally posted on the BoardSource Blog


The question is not meant to be funny, but the consistent reaction makes a distressing point. This haphazard selection method is all too familiar to nonprofits, associations, and other groups with volunteer leaders.

So, is volunteer leadership really a joke? Can an organization with such a casual approach — picking leaders without much forethought — really be serious about achieving its stated purpose?

Shouldn’t leadership selection be intentional instead of accidental?

Recognize the Problem

Beyond my own research, there is solid statistical validation of the frequency of unintentional leadership selection and development across the nonprofit sector. The reports stress the need for nonprofits to up their game.

BoardSource’s 2017 edition of Leading with Intent: National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices survey found that a considerable number of board chairs don’t have critical skills in key performance influencing areas. It emphasizes, “When it comes to board culture, the importance of the board chair’s leadership cannot be overstated.” According to the report, “There is a clear link between the ability of the board to work as a collaborative team and the board chair’s leadership.”

Imagine the frustration felt by the significant percentage of respondents reporting the inability of their board chair to resolve conflict, build consensus, and reach compromise. Moreover, the reality for a large portion of survey participants is that board chairs are not fostering an environment that builds trust among board members, not establishing clear expectations of board service, and not encouraging board members to frame and discuss strategic questions.

Ouch! How effective do you think those boards are? And do you think those nonprofits are realizing their full potential?

Wouldn’t it make sense to avoid those leadership shortcomings whenever possible? Why were those individuals who generated poor performance ratings even chosen for a leadership role in the first place?

Two other projects that BoardSource contributed to corroborate this line of thought.

The need for improving leadership selection and development is also recognized by the 2017 Stanford Survey on Leadership and Management in the Nonprofit Sector. The report lists weak and inadequate board leadership as a top challenge to the effectiveness of nonprofits. Not being trained to lead and lacking the necessary skills and experience were identified as key contributors to ineffective leadership.

Voices of Board Chairs, a study by the Alliance for Nonprofit Management, was conducted by its Alliance Governance Affinity Group. Its purpose was to gather information from nonprofit board chairs on how they prepare for their leadership role. The study revealed “about half of the respondents indicated they did nothing specific to prepare to become a board chair.” And when considering possible preparatory steps like first holding a different officer seat or chairing a board committee, few indicated taking an intentional route to being a board chair. Only 48 percent of respondents responded that they had held the role of vice chair.

The Alliance research team believes their findings should “encourage boards to place a greater emphasis on intentional board chair preparation and succession planning, as well as to strengthen board leadership.”

To avoid the management deficiencies identified in these three studies, nonprofits should utilize a purposeful selection process that considers qualification standards and criteria that meet each organization’s needs.

Strengthen Your Selection Process

Pay close attention to succession planning. Strengthen your selection process by preparing those being promoted to leadership roles for assuming the responsibilities involved. Grooming future leaders should include development opportunities for gaining the necessary skills and experience that will encourage their success.

To attract positive, performance-minded leaders who have your desired qualifications and leadership abilities, adopt these four priorities for leadership succession.

  • Identify your organization’s goals. How does it define success? A clear focus on purpose clarifies what leadership types you need.
  • Develop a pool of potential leaders. Identifying candidates for leadership roles should be an ongoing process. The pool can be a source for future officers, committee project chairs, and board members.
    This recommendation is reinforced by Leading with Intent survey participants who, when asked “What are the three most important areas the board should address to improve its own performance?” indicated development of a board leadership pipeline as among the top actions needed.

Prepare leaders at every level for their roles. Don’t limit preparation to the incoming chair or president. Succession planning should include all leadership positions.

  • Establish a job description as well as performance expectations for every position. Have an honest conversation with potential leaders about time commitments and responsibilities. Make sure each individual is comfortable with the task at hand, and is satisfied that he or she can meet the obligations.

Sometimes a “no” may be the best answer when someone is asked to take on a leadership role. Don’t force the prospect into a “yes” and end up with a critical position filled by someone who really doesn’t want to be there.

  • Take advantage of educational opportunities. Send those in your pipeline to state or national conferences. Consider using resources that specialize in volunteer leadership training. Use events and activities as training tools so those with less organizational experience have opportunities to learn.
    Invite future leaders to sit in on board or key committee meetings. Designate someone to serve as a mentor to those in your pool (which is also a great way to involve more experienced leaders).

Don’t lose future leaders by overloading and burning out overeager new members. Bring them along gradually.

BoardSource has a number of excellent resources for board leadership development, especially board chairs. Get information on publications, webinars, and in-person training by visiting the BoardSource website.

Volunteer board leadership is no laughing matter. Leading with Intent emphasizes, “Board leadership does have an impact on organizational performance.” Don’t leave it to chance.

What kind of process does your organization have for selecting the people in whom it entrusts its future?

Define your direction, create a leadership pool, establish expectations, and provide preparation, so that your board leadership succession happens by design and not by accident!

What leadership development process has worked for your organization? What have been the consequences of a leadership selection gone bad? Share you insights below.

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