Why Are You Asking Me On Board?

A piece I wrote on diversity efforts in board recruitment appeared on ArtsHacker last week. I primarily drew the content from a piece Jim Taylor, BoardSource’s vice president of leadership initiatives and education, wrote about his experiences being recruited for board membership.

He said his primary litmus test when being recruited to join a board is to ask what value he would bring to the board. He says this is a question anyone being recruited to join a board should ask. However, if the recruiter can’t provide a satisfactory answer that emphasizes his expertise or experience over his racial background, Taylor says he considers the real conversation is finished.

I quote the following in the ArtsHacker post:

Taylor observes that when people of color achieve something, it is often assumed a bar had been lowered to allow them to accomplish it. “So when a White board member recruits me and effectively diminishes the totality of my assets and qualifications to one aspect of my identity – my race–… I am still being seen as “less than”.

I go on to note that white board members have often been recruited based on their ability to garner financial support or exert influence on behalf of the organization rather than expertise they may bring to the table and no one questions their qualifications, mostly because their identity is viewed as the default norm.

My organization recruited new board members a few months back and I made an effort to specify what elements of people’s experience and background we felt was beneficial to the organization. I don’t believe I had read Taylor’s piece at that time.

However, in on a recent grant application where we were asked to discuss how we were diversifying our board, I did burn through a good portion of the precious character limit enumerating the value each of our new board members brought with them, mindful of Taylor’s article and wanting to make a small contribution toward mainstreaming this thinking.

As governance and equity become increasingly important considerations for non-profit boards, what someone brings is likewise a significant question all parties should be asking.

 

Many Lens of Board Recruitment

Heavy Lifting of Leadership Occurs Before Baton Is Raised

A week ago I cited a couple of posts Seth Godin had made about leadership. I and other readers were taken by his statement that leadership is a voluntary, risky and creative endeavor.

Since then he actually made a post about leadership that is directly related to the arts, using the what the public sees of an orchestra conductor vs. what the time and effort that under girds their appearance as a metaphor for all leadership.

(Just to note, I don’t know his characterization of what conductors do is completely accurate and exclusive to conductors within an organization, but trust the reader will get the overall meaning.)

Godin opens by saying the quality of a conductor is judged in one-two hour increments in which they wave a small stick and don’t make any noise. However, among the things great conductors do are:

Conductors set the agenda.

They amplify the hard work and esprit de corps of some, while working to damp down the skeptics within the organization.
They figure out which voices to focus on, when.
They have less power than it appears, and use their position to lead, not manage.

They transform a lot of ‘me’s’ into one ‘us’.

They stick with it for decades.

It’s a form of leadership that happens in private, but once in a while, we see it on stage.

In the interests of not copying and pasting 3/4 of a blog post, this is only an excerpt of his list. The gaps indicate where some of the omissions fall. Take a look at the full post if you are interested.

Like the posts I quoted last week, Godin’s view of leadership is one of generosity and humility that doesn’t seek the limelight or employ some form of duress to accomplish an objective. Though there also seems to be an implication that recognition is a natural reward for taking on the risk and work of being a leader. I am not sure that is entirely accurate in practice–especially when faced by people who employ or value the opposite characteristics.

TikTok As A New Employee Training Manual?

Daniel Pink made a tweet today that I immediately bookmarked so I could go back to it.

I hadn’t noticed at the time that this was year-end summary type article that reviewed the best advice entrepreneurs had given in 2020. There are a lot of interesting bits of insights covered here, some of which are more applicable to arts organizations than others.

The “What Would Your Replacement Do?” question referenced in Pink’s tweet was one of those with broad application. It refers to a mental exercise Upstart co-founder Dave Girouard would use to keep himself from getting too complacent:

…what would happen if tomorrow my board got together and fired me,” says Girouard….And if they bring her in and she starts at Upstart — what would she do differently than what I’m doing? I think about that for a while, and then I tell myself, ‘Why the hell aren’t you doing those things?’ It’s just this weird game I play to get myself to recognize that while I’m doing some things okay, I can be lulled into a place of feeling good about myself when I’m probably not doing some other things very well.”

The first bit of advice on the list caught my eye because it was a list of 40 questions to ask on interviews. The list is obviously written for the commercial sector and pretty heavily geared for start-ups there were still quite a number that would easily suit non-profit arts.

Things like: “What’s something that would only happen here but wouldn’t at other organizations?”, “When you’ve done your best work here, what about the culture has enabled you to do that?”, “What would 1:1’s be like with my direct manager? What types of topics would we discuss?”, “What is the title of the most senior underrepresented person at the company?”

“If I asked your investors what they’re worried about, what would they say?” –this one caught my attention because I immediately thought to replace “investors” with “board” which got me thinking about how well the organization might be communicating issues with the board and if the board was paying attention.

An article about Job To Be Done (JTBD) also caught my attention based on the statement: “People don’t simply buy products or services, they ‘hire’ them to make progress in specific circumstances.” This is often the case with people and arts and cultural experiences. People value the experiences across multiple dimensions.

Sunita Mohanty, who was interviewed for the article said she often uses the following prompt in relation to product development.

Which she says translates into the following: “Peloton JTBD: When I need an option to workout, but I can’t go to my favorite studio, help me to get a convenient and inspiring indoor workout, so I can feel my best for myself and my family.”

Off the top of my head, the way this might translate for an arts situation might be: “When I am seeking opportunities to spend time connecting with my family and friends, but I have trouble identifying places we feel completely welcomed, help us see ourselves and our stories so we feel acknowledged and valued in the broader community.

There is a lot of really valuable advice about hiring, evaluation, office culture, and diversity and inclusion listed in the article. As tempted as I am to cover them all, I don’t want to make this post super long. Many of the ideas intersect with other posts I have made or other articles that are out there.

But one idea that never came to my attention before was use of asynchronous video tools as a form of communication and new hire training.

In the early days of building Drift, I was using WhatsApp all the time. It was easy to record and send videos quickly. And so I started to communicate to my senior leadership team mostly asynchronously through video and audio messages,” says Cancel. “If we have a problem, we’d make a quick video on what we sucked at, how we fixed it, the results, and what we learned.
[…]
But Cancel has also noticed other benefits. “It allowed me to really think through what I was saying, versus just getting in a room with someone or having a back and forth in text messaging or a phone call,” he says. “It was the sharing aspect that really made it an effective tool for us — all of a sudden we had old videos on different topics that we could share with people who were starting their journey at Drift in their onboarding process…getting everyone focused, and helping folks understand why we were making decisions, giving us an ability to be transparent in a way that we couldn’t before.”

Given that so many people feel comfortable making videos of every little move they make, this struck me as a pretty viable practice in arts organizations and one that might even inform creative works.

You Say Capt. Kirk Was Unqualified? That’s What Made Him A Leader.

In December Seth Godin made two posts titled Creativity Is An Act of Leadership. The second of the two added (Redux).

I am a little leery of the trend in articles which label leaders as doing constructive things and managers being dedicated to the status quo. It smacks of the No True Scotsman fallacy.

Not to mention, there are so many articles with these lists, you would be hard pressed to keep track of what you are supposed to be doing lest to backslide into managerial morass. I prefer to think of the qualities attributed to leaders as things one should aspire to so you don’t get caught in a destructive cycle of self-recrimination if you occasionally want to spend time not reinventing the wheel.

That said, these are some of the things in Godin’s posts I liked. It resonates with work environments at artist organizations, especially as many move toward a more shared governance dynamic. Though there are still plenty of places with structured tiers of authority.

Leadership is voluntary. It’s voluntary to lead and it’s voluntary to follow.

When you have power and authority, it’s tempting to manage instead. Managers get what they got yesterday, but faster and cheaper. Managers use authority to enforce behavior.

But leadership involves acting as if. Leaders paint a picture of the future and encourage us to go there with them.

Which is what anyone who makes change through creative work is doing.

[…]

For too long, we’ve been confused about the true nature of leadership. It’s not about authority at all. It’s the brave work of inventing the future.

The second post is similar, but it focuses more on the theme of how leadership is like creativity in that you are constantly pushing into uncharted territory. The idea of leaders being those who stretch beyond their qualifications is intriguing. At the same time, the sentiment has long been enshrined in the opening narration of Star Trek episodes about going where no one has gone before.

If you feel like an impostor, it might be because you’re comparing yourself to a manager. We want managers and craftspeople to know precisely the steps that are involved in their work, and we want them to do it flawlessly.

Leaders, on the other hand, can never be qualified, because they’ve never done this before.

And creators — creators that don’t have a fancy job or aren’t given the label of “leader” — the same thing is true for them.

You don’t need a permit or a badge or a title to be a creative. You simply need to care enough to do creative work.

[…]

The next time you’re stuck being creative, perhaps it pays to substitute the word ‘leader’. And yes, the next time you’re stuck being a leader, perhaps it makes sense to use the word ‘creator’ instead.

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