Board management

Need to Delegate? Don't 'Just Do It!'

"Then I'll do it myself," said the little Red Hen.

While we all know this approach is not sustainable, how often - simply by default - do we fall back on it?

I recently had to consider this as I caught myself stepping back in to pick up a project I previously tried to hand off. All the while, telling myself I needed to do a better job of delegating. (This was a volunteer assignment, by the way, so I couldn't simply fall back on line management authority. Not that line authority is effective in its own right anyway!)

So, how do you delegate successfully? It seems to me the following steps are helpful.

1. Identify what's on your plate. Management consultant Rob Lederer first introduced me to this concept several years ago. He advocates writing down the tasks that take your time in as much detail as possible to help clarify your understanding of how you spend your time. This also allows you to consider each task specifically in terms of what you should do and what others could do. (Jim McGraw, the former Chief Operating Officer at Marion Laboratories and Chairman of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation would emphasize also identifying what you should not do, but that's another post entirely!)

2. Identify a prospective owner of the task(s) that could be transferred. In line management, you may be able to assign a task; in volunteer management, you have to find an owner. This really means you have to sell someone, convince them that this warrants their time and attention. Obviously, you want to pick someone who has the skills and abilities needed to successfully complete the assignment, as well as the capacity (time) and propensity (willingness) to take on this task.

3. Share your vision. How can you hope to get the results you expect unless you clearly communicate those expectations? But there's an inherent conflict between giving ownership ("I believe you can do this and I hope you will.") and giving direction ("Here's what I want you to do and how.") Each approach may be right in certain situations; your key to success is deciding which is most appropriate for this immediate assignment.)

4. Let go. This is the tough one! Allowing ownership means accepting someone else's ideas, style and sometimes, even schedule. (Now do you see the importance of taking care of Step 3 first?) Resist the urge to jump back in and do things your way. I often have to admit it's my own ego that's being threatened, not the end goal of the project. What's more, I also often find that by being open to approaches I hadn't yet considered, we actually produce even better results than I originally expected.

5. Stay informed. It's a delicate dance: how do you turn something over, yet continue to be responsible for the results? Again, this reinforces the importance of the first three steps. The more carefully you plan - and communicate - your continued involvement, the more smoothly (or, less awkwardly) that will happen. The goal is to stay informed and involved, without micromanaging or undermining the authority or abilities of the task's new owner.

6. Give credit where/when credit's due. Recognize willingness ... effort ... accomplishments - whatever you can - to reinforce and enable the new owner's success. Keep your own ego in check. In the words of Harry S. Truman, "It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit."

Even - no, especially - if you don't try to do it all yourself!

Planned Obsolescence

It's the kind of thing you hate about the technology in your new phone, but the trait you need to cultivate for yourself as a board or committee member. You need to render your presence obsolete, unnecessary to the success of the organization.

Walk with me. Talk with me.

Planning for your eventual obsolescence—your exit from said committee or board—is the best way to leave things better than you found them. And paradoxically, to leave a lasting impression. The key here is LASTING. I mean lasting success that results from the cool ass systems you put into place. Not an impression as in, "Man, Monica really left us high and dry. She was the only one who knew how to pull that newsletter together."

They won't remember how great it was when you were there. They'll be too busy trying to figure out how to fill the gaping hole you left in their communication plan or whatever niche you filled when you were in service to them.

Anon, some suggestions for leaving them with love:

Don't Just Do It. Nike be damned, y'all. Make sure you're not pulling some martyr weirdness and taking on responsibilities or tasks that need a longer shelf life than your brief tenure. Delegate and at least make sure everyone knows what's going on.

Great Expectations. If you are performing critical tasks, build that expectation into the role and train your successor. Make it clear what's expected as a committee chair (or whatever) and ensure the incumbent is prepared to tackle everything with ease.

Write It Down. If you've developed an annual communication plan over the course of your service, get it in writing and leave it with the executive director to share with the next person. If there are relationships you think it's beneficial for the person in your position to have (designers, other organizational contacts), put that down too so the board recruiting committee knows what kind of things to look for when scouting new board members.

Smell Ya Later. Don't fall off the face of the earth. Be available to chat with your successor, take them for coffee or lunch and let them know you're happy to answer questions and share tips.

What other things can people do to leave boards and committees even stronger when they make their exits? Comments, comments ... Share them on the M&C Facebook page and on Twitter.

So, Why Are You Here?


A friend who was once ED of a children’s advocacy group tells an anecdote about nonprofit boards.

“I’ll be on your board if you can answer one question for me,” challenged a local civic leader when invited to join.

“Well, I’ll try …” my friend responded.

“Explain to me why most business people check their brain at the door before they come into the boardroom.”

I thought of that recently as I came out of a presentation on branding I’d just made to a local group's board.

The point of the exercise was to help board members distill the story of their own involvement with the organization. To help them be able to explain what about the organization not only attracted them, but warranted enough interest and commitment that they would agree to be on the board of directors.

It’s a difficult assignment (which is why it’s worth thinking about in advance!)

I expected some reticence with the process. But a couple of board members were openly hostile.

Which led me to wonder: Why are you here?

It was readily apparent that each of these individuals felt strongly that they were making a contribution simply by bringing in a specific set of skills.

It was equally clear (to me, at least) that while some members expected the responsibilities of their position to extend beyond the boardroom, these two most definitely did not.

How do such divergent sets of expectations come about?

There are many possible sources. Lack of training. Lack of communication. Lack of direction. Lack of consistency. Lack of understanding. Lack of commitment.

The list goes on.

But it speaks to one of the most critical issues of board participation. People can agree to be on a board for a variety of reasons. And will bring with them a range of skills, experiences and expectations.

But a group of individuals will seldom coalesce by coincidence. It takes planning and focus and a willingness to work on it.

And usually, that has to come from the top.