Q:  One of our directors proposed that the board become a learning organization. As she explained it, the board would commit to continuously looking at what it was doing in an effort to see where and how it could improve, implementing whatever steps seem necessary so that it can get better and better at helping fulfill our mission. A number of us on the board are intrigued by the concept. We thought you could help us think through what it would take to become that kind of a board.

 

A: I’m excited to hear of your interest in this. Learning organizations tend to experience a number of benefits. Among them: an increased sense of team, which leads to increased engagement and feelings of deeper satisfaction and commitment; the development of more and stronger leaders; a greater sense of ownership and accountability; and, increased productivity.

You ask what it would take to become a learning organization. The short answer is work! Because of the fact that this won’t transpire by itself, there has to be agreement on the part of all your directors that there is room for improvement, and a desire to help the board be the best that it can be. You indicate that “a number” of your directors are intrigued by the idea. If the rest are comfortable with the way things are, it will be difficult to move the board forward on anything other than a sporadic basis and/or lucky happenstance.

Assuming the interest is there, there are steps you can take to up the board’s game. First, remember, this is about continuous learning. That requires providing ongoing opportunities for both formal and informal board education, which in turn requires at least some funding. Ensure there is a line-item in the budget sufficient to cover whatever educational experiences are anticipated, and others that may present themselves.

To determine what learnings the board should start with, undertake a self-assessment. This can be approached in a variety of different ways, depending on such things as how deep a dive you want to take, especially at any one time, how much experience you have on your board with this process, how threatened you expect your directors to be, and your budget. The easiest approach is to institute a regular executive session following your meetings, at which everyone other than directors are dismissed, and the board moves into an old-fashion “good and welfare” session. This is the time for directors to ask themselves honestly what they did well as a board and what they could do better. You can also download an assessment tool from the web (often for free) or borrow one from another organization. The problem with these is that they are usually boilerplate and may not get at what is most essential for your board. Third, you can use a validated tool that is administered and scored by a third-party and leads to specific recommendations. Some examples of these are BoardSource’s Board Self-assessment, Mel Gill’s Governance Self-assessment Checklist and Director’s Self-assessment Checklist or Yvonne Harrison and Vic Murray’s Board Checkup. Some of these can be costly. An advantage, though, is that you can see exactly how you are doing compared to other boards. You can also hire a consultant who specializes in this work. Or, you can employ some combination of these techniques to assess what areas you board is strong in, and what areas would benefit from intervention.

Once you have your list of recommended growth areas, you want to prioritize them. I suggest considering which of them – with a realistic degree of improvement – will help you most quickly accomplish your key strategic initiatives. Put those changes at the top of the list. Before implementing any specific strategies for change, determine what you will consider success. For instance, how and to what degree do you expect the board to be different after intervention. Consider, too, how you will measure the success of your intervention.

Armed with the knowledge of what you want to tackle, determine how you will tackle it. Identify the individuals(s) or committee to be responsible for creating the appropriate learning experiences for your board. This might be your governance or board development committee, a specialized task force for each item on the list, a consultant, a past board chair, or even a board chair from another organization. Personally, the one person I believe should not be responsible is the CEO. Have this individual or committee ascertain the best approach for initiating the desired change – e.g., providing training, modeling behaviors, sharing articles, or sending people to conferences. Give this individual or committee the authority to expend the necessary resources to accomplish its task. This includes time at board or extra-ordinary meetings to deal with the subjects adequately.

After each intervention, evaluate the changes made and celebrate the group’s success. Don’t short this last step! It will help cement the changes made.

Finally, establish if there are areas that still require additional work, as well as what new areas you are ready to take on. Then, start the process all over. Remember, this is a continuous cycle. Your work is never done. But, it does become easier, and it becomes its own reward.

 

Next month I will discuss some factors to take into consideration when building a learning organization. Meanwhile, if you are interested in finding out more about learning organizations, look at Peter Senge’s work. His The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organizationis a classic.