By Carlo Cuesta
Dear Fellow Undead Board Member:
A flesh-eating zombie doesn’t know any better, its does what other zombies do—it eats people. As an undead board member, I don’t know any better either. I listen and react, I approve budgets I know very little about, help set the occasional policy, and volunteer where I can. I am never deeply in touch with the real life of the organization or engaged in the public value that springs forth when mission turns to action. None of this is what I signed up for. I could blame it on the executive director and staff of the organization for not drawing out the best in me but that’s too easy. Somehow, somewhere between joining the board and the third or fourth meeting, I learned that in good times I am supposed to be (as one executive leader told me) both “proud and bored” or, when crisis hits, to be “outraged and forgiving.”
In his book Wired for Culture, evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel writes about how our early non-zombie ancestors survived extinction by not only learning to imitate each other, but also improving upon what they observed. While one person used a bone to break things, another took that bone and transformed it into an ax. In short, it is our ability to riff on each other’s ideas and create anew that has helped us survive and thrive. As a living dead board member zombie, I often wonder why I don’t get to do this with my colleagues. As a group, we rarely get the time to ask and explore very important questions. Through our monthly interactions we have learned to imitate each other without learning how to improve. Our creative selves are lacking and the ability to share and build on each other’s ideas is non-existent. When we do get time to “share,” we are so unprepared it feels like we blurt out non-sequiturs that we all nod our heads at approvingly.
As a result, I have committed myself to ending B-Movie board leadership and call upon all of us to reimagine what we talk about in our meetings—sharing our ideas and transforming how we engage as board members. Here are 10 questions we can reflect on:
1. What is needed in our community?
Instead of having one foot in the grave, we need to live with one foot inside the organization and one in the community. This give us a unique vantage point to listen carefully to a variety of perspectives that can both affirm and alter the lens our organization uses to perceive need.
2. What does the public expect of us?
Instead of trying to eat the public, we need to concern ourselves with what public wants from us even if they do not know we exist. We need to ensure that we are regularly posing questions and deepening our relationship with all of our stakeholders.
3. What is the driving passion that we share?
Zombies have feelings too. Let’s dig deep into understanding the different passions we bring, how they fit together, and how they meet both community needs and public expectations. If we can reconcile these personally, then we picked the right group of people to work with and it’s time to double down on our commitment.
4. Who do we want to effect?
When talking about stakeholders we need to combine both LOVE + LOGIC. Charity and reciprocity are emotional. Stewardship and governance are intellectual. We have to care about the people we are both serving and working with, while critically examining our ability to affect the relationships we have.
5. What is the impact we promise to deliver?
We need to be both bold and realistic about impact. “Bold” in terms of promising to deliver specific meaningful value and “realistic” in knowing that we can make good on it.
6. What beliefs will guide ho we act?
By knowing are values, we know who we are. By knowing who we are, we can take disciplined action as well as communicate clearly and succinctly.
7. What goals and direction shall we choose?
Don’t wait until the next planning retreat. Let’s put our goals front and center at every board meeting— clear about what we need to accomplish, but also courageous in our willingness to challenge our assumptions.
8. How will we position our human and financial resources?
This is more than approving a budget or an organizational chart. We need to work together to build a narrative about how we are going to deploy resources. This is about knowing how resources enable action that creates the kind of impact we are promising to deliver.
9. Who do we need to engage in order to inspire commitment?
Living dead board member zombies don’t talk, we just grunt. We have to find our voice by trusting and articulating our own passion for the cause instead of waiting for some elusive perfect message that sums up what the organization is all about.
10. How will we improve our work?
Finally, we need to articulate what is important to us. Capture data on this. Review what we learn and make evidence-based choices about how to improve the way we create impact and deliver value for those we serve.
These questions are not exhaustive by any means. Every board is unique. But we can begin here. We can start our exploration and reclaim why we wanted to be on the board in the first place. Or…
…we can ignore these questions and make our strategic imperative to eat the brain of the executive director instead. Just make sure you save me the frontal lobe, it’s the tastiest.
Carlo Cuesta is the lead consultant for Creation In Common.