The Same 100

Four tips for invigorating our community, nonprofit and civic leadership

A few years ago, NASA called. 

Well, not exactly NASA. But NASA and other employers on Florida’s Space Coast called to ask, “How can we keep our new teachers and engineers and programmers? They come for a couple of years and then skip town.” The problem was getting expensive.

Through dozens of interviews, we found that the root cause was not a problem of job dissatisfaction. It was a problem of community attachment. Young professionals came to Florida with high hopes of making their mark—at work and in their communities. But they just couldn’t break into civic life. One interviewee said, “It’s the same one hundred people who run everything here.”

A few months later, I flew to the Space Coast to meet with key employers to share our findings. Before the program started, I turned to a gentleman next to me and observed how festive the room was for such an early morning meeting.

“Oh, yeah,” he laughed. “We all know each other. It’s about the same hundred of us who are on all the major boards. In fact, after this meeting, about twenty of us are all going to another meeting for United Way!”

I joked about carpooling and noted the irony. Here was the tragic, exact replica of the problem young professionals suspected, seen from another lens.

There is great comfort when the “Same 100” run our city, our nonprofits and our civic institutions. But there are also risks. Beyond the “you’re-an-outsider” message it gives to newbies, the Same 100 enables group-think, a precursor to stasis and eventual decline. 

Here are four ideas to keep things fresh for our community, nonprofit and civic leadership.

1. Remember your purpose.

Alverno College starts each trustee meeting with prayer. At first, this made me twitchy; I’m not a religious person, and I felt like a fraud praying with other trustees. But over time, I came to cherish this ritual; it put all of us in a state of contemplation and helped us remember our true purpose: to serve Alverno’s mission to prepare women for their lives.

Symphony boards invite musicians to play an arrangement, colleges ask students to share a summary of their dissertation, agencies invite their clients to tell their stories. What are you doing to set a tone of purpose in your board meetings?

2. Consider your routine and expectations.

Most boards meet monthly or bimonthly for sixty to ninety minutes. If you have twenty people on your board, this is hardly enough time for everyone to get settled to do real work, which involves serious discussion, analysis and processing. (And then there’s the elephant in the room: Are board members prepared to work?)

Your board should bring a diversity of perspectives to the organization, and to get the group effect of this takes time. 

So what if your board met less frequently, but for longer? Quarterly meetings of two to two and a half hours give the board a chance to dig in to real issues in a substantive way. Bonus points if the board culture requires members to read their packets beforehand and come ready to dig in. Spending twenty minutes bringing any board with twenty executives “up to speed” wastes over $31,250 in salaries, based on an average executive’s pay. 

3. Are you making gains?

I’ve served on eight boards and only one had a meaningful scorecard: a single page with twenty-four boxes. In each box, there were two numbers (last year’s and this year’s numbers) and a color: green for excelling, blue for on track and red for “oh, crap.” Many of these were leading measures—they predicted the organization’s future success.

How do you measure success? What key metrics do you need to know if the organization is on track, ahead or behind?

 4. Are you future-focused?

At the end of each Alverno trustee meeting, we were given an index-sized card with a series of questions to rate the meeting’s effectiveness.

I was always struck by the question, “Were the issues discussed substantive to the College’s future?” Because if you’re assembling your board only to listen to reports of what’s already happened, you’re wasting their time. Boards should be focused primarily on the windshield, not the rearview mirror.

Rebecca Ryan is a futurist who’s worked with more than fifty cities in North America on strategies to engage and retain young talent. Contact Rebecca Ryan at rr@nextgenerationconsulting.com.

Find more of her columns here

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