January 2010 Archives

meandjulia.jpg"You have to begin with changing yourself. That means having the self-honesty to look at what in yourself needs to be changed. No one's perfect."

Yet another one of those things easier said than done. No one's perfect. Who could argue with that? Dr. Erich Longie has a lot more experience being a successful board president than I do, so I tend to listen to him.

What do you want as board president? One thing is you want your fellow board members to trust you. BUT do you trust them? Here's Erich again:

"Sometimes as a president you don't communicate with your fellow board members because you don't trust them. That might be because you just don't know them well enough, in which case you need to have the generosity to give them the benefit of the doubt. Or you might have a reason to mistrust them in which case you need to be honest about it. Tell them you aren't giving them this information because you DON'T trust them."


Why don't we tell people what we honestly think about them? A lot of different reasons, I would imagine. We don't like conflict. We want people to like us. We want to be seen as a team player. In truth, we just don't want to face the consequences.

Yet, like the ACLU board member I quoted in my last post said, what is it that we are really afraid of, it's not like they're going to send you to Guantanomo.

So.... I will be honest and say here are what I think are my biggest faults as a board president.

  1. I don't trust my fellow board members very much. Sometimes it is for a good reason, e.g., they have leaked confidential information. Other times, though, it is just because I have been disappointed many times in life by completely different people who are not on this board. Because of this, I don't always share information with the other board members.
  2. When someone does something I consider unethical or incompetent, I seldom confront them about it. My reason is that I don't think it does any good and just causes conflict. Instead, I just ignore that person in the future. Maybe there is a way to turn those people around and get them back on track but I don't know how to do it. I am really fortunate that most of the people I work with are ethical and competent.
  3. Because I am not particularly trusting,  I try to do too much myself and don't delegate enough. I am happy to say that I am making some progress on that. The great part of it is that not only are other people stepping up and really showing their talents but it also gives me more time to do things like read books or go to the movies with my 11-year-old daughter.
  4. I sometimes blow things out of proportion.  I probably made the most progress on this one. My friend Bruce gave me a really good perspective when we were talking about a non-profit organization giving a certificate to someone who hadn't done much other than donate a lot of money. I said that it implied the person had more knowledge than they did. Bruce said,
"So what?!! Good! You have one rich idiot trying to impress a lot of other rich idiots showing off a piece of paper that costs your organization fifty cents. Then maybe his rich idiot friends will donate, too. Babe, what is the possible downside of that?"

I have found that by having the courage to face what are my biggest weak points as a board president has been half of the work of changing and becoming more effective.

And it only hurt a little.

Can you really learn  ethics from  a book?  Mark Twain argued that there were only  two ways to learn - from smart people and from books written by smart people.

The latest book I read, Worst Instincts, is about boards, particularly, the ACLU board.

The author, Wendy Kaminer, opens with a story from her childhood. A group of kids decided to steal another boy's notebook and destroy it, knowing he would get into a lot of trouble. Even though she knew it was very wrong, she went along with it, and when the boy came asking door to door if anyone had seen it, she was too ashamed to confess. What was she so afraid of that she would not  Fast forward many years and she is on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union. She asks this question,

"If you were on a golf team playing in a tournament where the winning team got a large donation to the charity of its choice and you noticed that one of your team members was cheating, would you do anything about it?"

Ms. Kaminer argues that most people would not turn in their teammate, justifying it by the fact that the charity would get money if the team won, the player would be embarrassed if disqualified, etc. She points out, though, that most people exaggerate the benefits and underestimate the costs of their failure of the courage to be honest. If your team was disqualified, some OTHER charity would get the money, it wouldn't be spent on programs supporting drug dealing. Yes, your teammate would be embarrassed  - but so what.

On to the issue of boards. Ms. Kaminer talks about her experiences as an ACLU board member. When she criticizes the board president, several other board members send her private emails praising her bravery.

The author is puzzled by this. She says,

"It's not as if I was going to be sent to Guantanomo (for criticizing the board president). "

In fact, she points out, all that was at risk was an unpaid position on a non-profit board. There are plenty of good non-profit organizations in this country working toward worthy causes. The worst outcome is that she would end up helping another organization instead of this one.

Given those facts, why do we so often see people display their worst instincts? Why do they fail to stand up against wrong actions by fellow board members? One example given by Kaminer is an agreement the board president signed regarding a violation of privacy. In short, it seemed that somehow information in the ACLU computer had not been kept as private as people expected. The key point was, though, in the legal settlement he signed the president agreed to share the information on this security violation and the settlement with the board within 30 days. He did not do it. In fact, he didn't do it until five months later when a board member confronted him about it.

The arguments Kaminer reported are the same ones we always hear,
"What's the big deal?"

She says that it IS a big deal when a board president does not share information with the board members even after signing a legal agreement to do so. 

I am president of a board, and having listened to a lot of Erich's lectures on self-honesty lately I got to asking myself if I always share all of the information with our board as expeditiously as possible. The truth, I have to say, is no. Like anyone, I am closer to some people than others, know some of my fellow board members more than others, trust some more than others and some people I talk to no more than I have to.

I gave it more thought and the hard truth came to me that what Erich is probably right when he always says that if you want change, you need to start with yourself.

Smart people, smart books. Guess that is how you learn.

That's Just Stingy !

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Erich asked me to give an example of false pride. I said, for example, if we were to do a workshop, me, him and someone else, but Erich insisted that he had to be the only presenter because he is the president of the company and he knows so much more than us. Then, me and the other hypothetical person refuse to do the workshop, no one gets paid and all the people who would have attended get no training.

Erich said,

"I wouldn't call it false pride. That would just be stupid."

So, I tried another example I see often at meetings, where one person dominates the conversation. No matter what the subject, this person is continually putting himself or herself forward. This board member goes on at great length about MY opinion on this issue, MY ideas for how to deal with it, ME as chair of this committee, etc. It is not that these people don't have anything to offer. They are often knowledgeable, intelligent people. What they are missing, though, is the fact by completely dominating the attention of the group they are keeping other people from being heard, people who can have other ideas that may be equally good or better, people who can also make contributions.

Erich exclaimed,

"That's just stingy !"

I laughed because I think stingy is the most negative thing Erich can ever call anyone. While I have often thought of honesty and courage as being the most important ethical values, I have come to agree with Erich that all have their place. I think stinginess - the opposite of generosity - the small, petty, mean acts that take place within organizations can also cause failure. It's sort of the "death of a thousand cuts" where each act of gossip or stinginess just reduces the respect for the organization a little bit, just makes other board members or employees a little bit less interested in working for the organization. The irony of it is that those "stingy" people really do believe that they are the best thing to ever happen to their organizations.

So, maybe false pride and stinginess really are the same things sometimes?