Performance Practice Introduction: Leadership

Introduction: Leadership

Performance Practice Learning Module

Does your organization have the courageous and adaptive board and executive leadership needed to drive performance?

Reflecting on leadership is the perfect starting point for those who want to strengthen their leadership teams and increase board engagement.

This learning module is one of seven Performance Practice modules that help you and your team reflect on the extent to which your organization’s behaviors and practices align with the principles of high performance. Review the questions below—and share them with your colleagues—for an introduction to the principles and practices of courageous, adaptive executive and board leadership.

What can you learn about leadership by discussing these topics?

Do your executives and board embrace the responsibility to deliver meaningful, measurable, and financially sustainable results for the people or causes the organization is in existence to serve?

  • Have your organization’s executives and board formally documented that they are mutually responsible for ensuring strong performance and what their respective roles in achieving it look like? Furthermore, have they fully committed to and accepted these roles and responsibilities?
  • Do you have a formal process by which your organization’s executives assess themselves individually and collectively, at least once a year, to hold themselves accountable for delivering strong results?
  • Do you have a formal process by which your organization’s board members assess themselves individually and collectively, at least once a year, to hold themselves accountable for delivering strong results?

Are your board members strong, assertive governors and stewards, not just supporters and fundraisers? Do they recruit, advise, and hold accountable the lead executive (CEO)? Do they ask probing questions about whether the organization is living up to its promises and acknowledge when course correction is needed?

  • Do your organization’s executives and board identify and prioritize the diverse skills and backgrounds you need on your board to produce meaningful results—and use this as guidance for recruiting and vetting prospective board members?
  • Do you use strong board orientation and engagement processes that encourage board members to ask probing questions and provide constructive pushback to the CEO?
  • Are your organization’s board meetings data-informed? Do meetings include reports on results, and do they allow for in-depth discussions on major strategic issues?
  • Does your organization’s board review the CEO’s performance annually and use this process to help set goals for the coming year? Does this review include a self-assessment by the CEO, an assessment by the governance committee, input from the full board, and insights from staff (not necessarily attributed to the individual)?

Do your executives and board clarify the mission (purpose) of their organization and inspire people to work to achieve it?

  • Do your organization’s executives, board, and key staff thoroughly review, question, and revise as necessary your organization’s mission—and the core assumptions upon which it is based—every three to five years?
  • Can all board members point to specific instances in which they’ve actively shared the organization’s mission within their own networks to further the organization’s goals?
  • Do your organization’s executives periodically assess how well they have communicated the mission internally and externally?
  • Does your organization’s board periodically assess how well they have communicated the mission internally and externally?

Do your executives and board recruit, develop, engage, and retain the talent necessary to deliver on the mission? Do they know that great talent is a huge differentiator between organizations that are high performing and those that aren’t?

  • Is your organization’s CEO deeply and personally engaged in talent recruitment and development, with an eye toward strengthening your talent base at every opportunity?
  • Does your organization have a formal succession plan for every C-level role in the organization?
  • Does your organization apply professional-development and compensation practices that reflect the importance of cultivating and keeping great talent—and the disproportionate cost of losing it?

Do your executives and board marshal the external partners and resources necessary to deliver on your mission?

  • Does each board member invest time outside of formal board and committee meetings to work in partnership with your executives to raise the resources you need to finance the organization?
  • Can each board member point to at least one example annually of opening doors and/or fostering relationships that have helped you advance your mission (e.g., relationships with policymakers, business leaders, or the media)?

Do your executives and board passionately push the organization to get better at meeting its mission and reduce costs without compromising quality?

  • Are your organization’s board members sufficiently knowledgeable about your business model and service-delivery model to engage in routine, constructive questioning of how you deploy resources?
  • Do your organization’s executives regularly and rigorously analyze how you are deploying all resources—not just money but also people, time, energy, and focus—with an eye toward shifting resources to those areas that can have the greatest impact?
  • Do your organization’s board members regularly and rigorously analyze how you are deploying all resources—not just money but also people, time, energy, and focus—with an eye toward shifting resources to those areas that can have the greatest impact?
  • Do your organization’s executives routinely review research and engage in learning opportunities that can help you improve your organizational effectiveness, produce improved results, and/or reduce costs without compromising quality?
  • Do your organization’s board members routinely review research and engage in learning opportunities that can help you improve your organizational effectiveness, produce improved results, and/or reduce costs without compromising quality?

Are your executives and board humble enough to seek and act on feedback on their own performance and that of their organization? Do even the highest of high performers know that they haven’t figured it all out and acknowledge that they still have a lot of work to do?

  • Are your organization’s leaders receptive to feedback, and do they actively seek it out from staff, beneficiaries, other external stakeholders, internal performance data, and external evaluations?
  • Do your organization’s leaders acknowledge publicly where you need to improve and what you still need to understand better if you are to realize the results you seek?

Are your executives and boards constantly assessing not only what the organization should be doing but also what it should stop doing, with an eye to redirecting scarce resources to the highest-opportunity areas?

  • Can your organization cite specific cases in which you have cut back or eliminated efforts you found to be ineffective, redundant, or unsustainable and/or redirected resources to areas of greater opportunity?
  • Does your organization periodically assess the costs and benefits of each function (through “zero-based budgeting” or some other process) to evaluate whether each is worth continuing?
  • Can your organization cite specific examples of cases in which you have turned away potential funders when their intentions didn’t align with the organization’s mission or readiness?

Have your executives and board clearly defined their respective roles?

  • Have your organization’s executives and board put “terms of engagement” in writing, and do they use them in orientation sessions for new executives and board members?
  • Do your organization’s board chair and CEO routinely spend time outside of board meetings getting to know each other and building a strong, effective working relationship?

Do your executives and board model thoughtful, clear, informative, and timely internal and external communications? Do they see communications as a strategic function that is essential for delivering great results and not just good PR?

  • Do your organization’s leaders communicate your results transparently to both internal and external audiences? (Transparency about results helps drive even better results over time.)
  • Do your organization’s leaders empower and equip all employees and volunteers to play a role in external communication about your work and results, and can they point to specific examples of how this works in practice?
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