From Politics to Purpose - The Rebirth of a Board
by Harry the Executive Director and Tom FitzGerald

Harry's Story

I'm Harry. I'm the Executive Director ....

It was over. The last meeting of the old era. By some alchemy it had also been the first meeting of the new. The chair declared the board meeting over. But nobody left. They should be tired but they talked to each other instead of running away; they used to do that.

They were seeing each other differently and finding something good to say and praise and plan. Involving the staff too. And Alice, the new director, was now a veteran. And they were no longer trying to suck me into their plots. It felt Sooo good. The chair gave me a wink. They were treating me as one of them, again.

Though they had not noticed it at the time, over the last couple of days we had been clearing the plaque out of the association arteries. Item by item. Issue by issue. Hard feelings, sulks, enmities too.

The chair had called it strategic planning. Alice, with her fresh eyes, knew it was corporate renewal. Later, we would refer to it as The Time Of Spring Cleaning. There was a new beginning. A new energy. A new era was underway.


No association executive, no chairman of the board, need be told that boards and politics go together; it is part of the human condition. And a certain amount of politics is necessary for anything to get done.

But, politics is something that has an innate need to grow and flourish, like weeds, in number, in complexity, in intensity. Beyond some limited amount, an increase in board politics causes a deterioration in leadership. It is as if politics feasts upon the finite energy of the board (and the staff).

And, left unchecked, the situation within the association degenerates from distracting the board, to consuming the exec, to burning out the staff. And then to missed opportunities, to mistakes, to gross errors. And so on down.

But progress down this path is not inevitable. Execs and boards can take action to halt it, reverse it; from dissonance, back to harmony, even to resonance.

In the early stages this reversal is almost easy, if the signs and symptoms are seen and understood. But as conditions worsen, as the exec and senior staff are sucked deeper into the mire and become seen as part of the problem, it is harder. Eventually, execs must look to survival; board leaders to draconian measures.

However, a process exists that execs and boards can use at any time to profoundly simplify politics, and refocus the energies released by this into a renewal of purpose and leadership and a real commitment to achievement. And the process works, not just for early stage turnaround but even for extreme cases.

The process, at its simplest, has just three components:

1) Illumination: Bringing to the surface the real issues, the secrets, the demons of the organization. Depending on the level of politics, these can be many or few, severe or mild. There may be strategic, financial or operational issues among them. But always they will have personalities and person-to-person relationships at their root.

2) Catharsis: Causing the board, (and staff if needed) to deal with these issues until they are resolved. All the issues of the organization must be dealt with eventually, but the core issues, the gut issues, the people and relationship issues must be dealt with first.

3) Commitment: Transferring the energies released into a gut commitment to a new future, a new behavior and a new level of performance.


Harry's Story

One night a few weeks before, the chairman and I got together over beer to tailor the questionnaire. I contributed the probing questions about the board. He, the questions about operations. Then, at a special meeting, the board and senior staff answered it. Anonymously. And why not! After all, we were going to be planning.

The whole association, body soul and bottom line, would be lit from within, even to its darkest corners, its ghosts, its monsters.


This all sounds easier said than done. How, for instance, do you get them to agree to do it in the first place? How do you get at the real issues? How is an exec to do this without making mortal enemies? How can a chairman take on friends of many years? How do you make them talk? Change? But it is simple.

Lets do it!

Not by chance, the renewal process is also a planning process. Granted, it is a planning process that addresses more than the usual topics, and is conducted in an unusual way, and radically changes organizations. But it is planning and very detailed plans are generated. Boards understand about planning. Being asked to participate in planning is to be expected.

Getting at the real issues

As part of the planning process, have the board take an hour during a meeting and answer a detailed questionnaire, anonymously. It should cover not just the typical association goals and performance issues but should address a wide range of drivers and include the issues that frequently plague boards and the effects of these on the association. If you use a standard questionnaire, tailor to make sure the gut issues of your board are included.

Tabulate the results in a manner that allows the participants to see the answers by individual, though they don't know who. They will soon recognize their own answers. This alone becomes a powerful lever for change.

Senior staff should answer the questionnaire too. If your association is large, all managers and supervisors should take it. The process you use for the board can work just as well internally.

First evaluate the responses (but read the comments last). Study the results until you can track each individual, at least on the board and senior staff, over the entire range of issues. Averages and chi squares and other sophisticated measures don't matter here, individuals do. And your understanding of their motivations will make the difference. The usual automated survey reports seldom permit this.

Then mark each issue of consequence. We use a simple, understandable star system for this. We designate issues as being one *, two **, three *** stars. Like fire alarms. And then lay out the plan of attack, which issue to deal with first, second, third.

Depending on the survey results, schedule a one or two day session with the board and the senior staff. Remove the tables from the room. Give no one anything to hide behind. We use an open ark of chairs facing large screens.


Harry's Story

Now it was time. That morning we had made a safe place and strengthened it issue after issue. Now it was time to face the first monster; there were three. The board had seen the price the association was paying for this monster, the pain it was causing, the hurts to the staff and (even) to me. They named the demon.

Everyone had known it all along, even Alice. All had spoken of it privately. But never had it been brought out into the open: George and Mike detested each other. Had for years.

It was time to ask the question. "What will you do about it?" The facilitator gently asked. He was looking from one to the other. No one spoke.


Resolving the issues

This does require some skill and if you know there is significant pathology or you want to save time, use an outside facilitator. Then begin. One issue at a time, bring their responses up, keep them before their eyes, and cause them to deal with them.

What is the real answer here?
What did we mean by this?
What did this person (anonymous but recognizable as an individual) mean?
What are the consequences?
What is the REAL answer?


Harry's Story

They both just sat there and looked at the screen, at the answers of their peers, even their own answers. Finally Mike said, "I'm willing to shake hands." George, red faced, curtly nodded.

The facilitator asked again, so gently, "Will that be enough?" The tension mounted still more. And again Mike spoke, "If it isn't, I'll resign." "Me Too." said George.

The board nodded one by one, that would be agreeable. And then grinned and broke into applause. The energy was alive in the room. And we knew where to invest it.


Don't let them slide off. Hold the mirror. On the gut issues they must talk about them emotionally. Intellect is never enough. Sooner or later on each issue they will say, "This is what we are, God help us." You are waiting for the God Help Us. They have accepted, viscerally, what the issue really is. And let it go. Catharsis!

This is the point of change (on this issue). The energy that was tied up is now in the room. You must move it immediately into a new vision. Ask, What do we need/want? How can we phrase this?

As they speak, record their words on the big screen. Sooner or later you will hear them say, "This is who we WILL be". You are waiting for the WILL, their visceral commitment to the vision. Everyone will know it when it happens. Then you ask:

What's the action?
Who will do it?
When will it be done?
Who will follow up?
Do you (by name) commit to doing this?

Then, and only then, is the energy invested in the future. Cathexis!


Harry's Story

Somehow, in our work, we had awakened the Association. It was again a living entity. It had made its needs and hopes known. It and we had found a new simplicity, a new vision. The energy released from all the politics and all the secrets had poured into the new.

And if the new looked a lot like the old, now the new was invested with commitment and power and the grace to motivate. Things long lost from the old. And irreversible action was already underway, as well as the promise to follow up and make it happen.


The process is gloriously simple. And it works. It takes only the desire to do what is right and the knowledge that in the bright light of day politics are shamed and shrivel, dragons wither and die and secrets lose their power. And their power is released into the life of the organization and its future.


Harry the Executive Director is an executive director of a large professional society. He wishes to remain anonymous pending the publication of his book.

Tom FitzGerald is a bottom-line oriented, consulting management engineer, who specializes in effecting major improvements in profitability, performance and growth. He has worked with CEOs and COOs of more than 200 organizations in the US, Canada and Europe, ranging in size from start-up to Fortune Five Hundred. By education, a physicist. By birth, Irish. By instinct and experience, a business catalyst. He has been president of FitzGerald Associates since 1976.

FitzGerald Associates specializes in Profit & Performance Improvement, Corporate Renewal, Preemptive Turnaround, Assessment and CEO Coaching. For information on Key Note Presentations call 847-599-9960, fax 253-323-3387 or e-mail fitz@ManagementConsultants.com . Information on the corporate renewal/turnaround process is available at www.ManagementConsultants.com . Please feel free to visit.

N.B. FitzGerald Associates were selected "Best in Class for Corporate Turnaround, Renewal" by the editors of The CEO Refresher. (ed.)

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Copyright 2000 - 2001 by Tom FitzGerald. All rights reserved.

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