Getting the Best from a Board
After a transformative Wexner experience led me to question my work in the secular world, I “crossed the line” to become a Jewish communal professional in 2002. By 2008, when I became founder/CEO of UpStart, I had been a lay leader on eight boards of directors. During my lay experiences, I had often heard expressions of dissatisfaction with the board experience. Upon becoming a professional, I now heard executive directors approaching their boards with trepidation. As we launched UpStart, it was clear that having experience on both sides of the board-staff partnership offered valuable insights upon which to build the new board.
My board experiences were most constructive when relationships within the board itself as well as with staff partners were open, respectful, serious and fun; it also helped when roles and responsibilities were well-defined. I came to recognize that for Upstart, we needed a board-level “brain trust” with diverse networks and areas of expertise, a pioneering and entrepreneurial spirit, a passion for innovation and belief that change in Jewish life was necessary and exciting — in other words, a board with diverse perspectives and expertise aligned with the mission and life stage of the organization.
In partnership with the founding board chair, we established the following:
- An articulated governance philosophy patterned on Governance as Leadership, authored by Richard P. Chait and William P. Ryan.
- The Budget and Finance Committee handles most fiduciary responsibilities bringing issues with strategic implications to the board. Other governance issues draw on the board’s varying perspectives for strategic thinking or adaptive challenges that require generation of new ideas.
- A well-conceived governance structure. We best meet the need for a sound governance structure when it is responsive to the interests and lifestyles of board members:
- Maximize the use of board-staff-advisor working groups: task and time limit the work and communicate outcomes to be achieved (i.e. why the work matters). Give group the autonomy to determine the strategy(ies) to achieve the outcomes and develop implementation plan.
- Maximize use of video conferencing: make it easy and efficient for participation of even local board members/volunteers. Hold in-person launch for as many members as possible to jumpstart relationships.
- Scheduling of meetings: never hold any meeting that isn’t essential to moving the work forward. Hold fewer meetings for longer time periods to take work deeper and advance relationship building.
- Use time wisely at board meetings. Identify action requested for each agenda item with a link to supporting materials. Include reports in board materials for pre-meeting education and assume they are read in advance.
- Attend to board culture. Each member is fully present at meetings; brings assets forward to advance the work; is serious and finds joy in the work.
- Board is a “program” of the organization. Board chair is ultimately responsible for the quality and effectiveness of the board’s experience. S/he makes a point of knowing, managing and supporting each board member’s needs and expectations, working to create a board that is aligned with the organization’s and the board’s goals and objectives.
- Regular, open, safe and honest communication sits at the heart of a successful board chair-CEO relationship.
This past year I notified the UpStart board that it was time to initiate a CEO succession planning and execution process. The pathway to scaling our impact beyond the work of our offices in the Bay Area and Chicago was clear. It was the best time to attract the kind of professional needed to follow a founder and significantly expand our reach across North America and in Israel.
The UpStart board readily and capably rose to this next level of leadership. Its purpose and practice was clear and effective. The agility of working group practice made convening this new working group a “matter of course.” Its past productivity gave confidence in its ability to succeed. The CEO search was announced in early July 2015, a robust pool of candidates was rapidly attracted and a highly competent and inspirational CEO was brought on board by mid-October. Board functioning at its best!
Toby Rubin, a Wexner Heritage alum (San Francisco 2), is a coach/consultant. From 2004-2015, as founder/CEO, she led UpStart Bay Area, a non-profit dedicated to advancing innovative ideas that contribute to the growth and vitality of Jewish life. UpStart contributed to the business development of Moishe House, G-dcast, Kevah, A Wider Bridge, Wilderness Torah, Urban Adamah, Mishkan Chicago and many other new Jewish organizations. Under Toby’s leadership, UpStart branched out to work with dozens of mature Jewish organizations as well, helping to build their internal innovation capacity. Toby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.