My friend Brian Fraser of www.jazzthink.com has written an article about the relationship between jazz and conversation around the board table. I think it's a very interesting article about how we do and how we might work together around board tables. While Brian is talking about 'not-profit boards', I think his models and thinking are very worthwhile for 'for-profit' boards as well. What do you think?
SMARTer Governance: Board Members, Conversations, and Jazz Musicians by Brian Fraser
Board meetings are made up of conversations. People who are passionate about the cause served by an organization agree to gather ....to converse with one another about the best ways of guiding and supporting its performance. In the most simplistic yet powerful terms, board members govern nonprofits by having conversations.
If you converse, you are a jazz musician. Jazz happens around an accepted set of structures mastered and performed by every musician. The most basic structures in jazz are melody, rhythm and harmony. Every time jazz musicians perform, they use those structures in ways that open up innovative possibilities of interpreting the melody being played.
Conversation is the most common form of improvisation or jazz in human experience. There is a commonly-accepted core structure for a conversation – grammar and vocabulary – which is similar to the melody, rhythm and harmony of jazz. Without that structure, no sense will be made and no communication will happen. But you use grammar and vocabulary differently every time you open your mouth to engage in a conversation. You improvise. You play jazz.
Since governance happens through conversations, every nonprofit board member is a jazz musician.
It’s a provocative image for nonprofit board members. Let me explore a bit further with you how this image of board members as jazz musicians might transform the way you work with your board colleagues. I believe that imagining yourselves as jazz musicians will invigorate the way you generate the melodies, rhythms and harmonies of your board and nonprofit. The result, should you begin to incorporate some of these insights into your own performance as a board member, will be SMARTer governance.
What’s SMARTer Governance?
For the past decade, I’ve been conducting research on the qualities of great teamwork people see and hear in the performance of a jazz group. From the thousands of responses we’ve analyzed – including many from board members – we’ve developed an acronym. SMART identifies the five kinds of conversations essential to great teamwork.
The elements and flow of SMARTer governance is as follows:
Soulful - engaging in positive self-talk
Mindful - building productive relationships
Astute - analyzing and deciding wisely
Responsible - establishing mutual accountability and support
Trusting - monitoring and measuring for continuous improvement
Nonprofit boards need to operate as great teams to generate great governance. The best nonprofit boards are filled with people who are willing to convene and participate in SMART conversations as they govern their nonprofits. Such SMART conversations happen before, during and after board meetings, but they all focus on making the services of the organization ever SMARTer in achieving its purposes. Let’s examine each kind of conversation in a bit more detail as it applies to governing nonprofits.
Soulful Conversations are the conversations you have with yourself prior to going into the board meeting.
They are the conversations in which you remind yourself of the best of the reasons you said “Yes” to sitting on this board. They are the conversations in which you discern afresh the most important insights and talents you can offer to this meeting agenda. And, finally, they are the conversations in which you set for yourself, as only you can do, the intention to be calm, curious and appreciative throughout the meeting.
If you can manage yourself to be calm within, curious about what might best happen and appreciative of the talents and potential that sits around the table, you will be an inspiring presence in the meeting. That kind of presence is infectious. It sets an admirable tone that attracts imitation.
These conversations do not need to be long. They certainly don’t need to be held out loud. Have them with yourself as you are walking the dog before leaving home, driving to the meeting, taking the elevator or stairs to the board room or sitting and waiting for the meeting to start.
The critical thing here is that you focus these conversations with yourself on bringing your absolute best to the meeting in service of the organization’s ability to help people improve their lives.
Jazz musicians often do this kind of thing as they are setting up and tuning their instruments. They take a few minutes to listen to what’s going on within and to focus on managing that energy so that it contributes to the performance of the group. Take a look back at the image of the jazz group on the first page of this article and notice how focused and calm each of the musicians appears. That’s the attitude, the presence, you want to take into your next board meeting.
Mindful conversations are the conversations through which you build positive relationships with board colleagues that will benefit the organization.
The best ones begin with curiosity. It’s the only attitude that really invites someone else into a common space for a genuine conversation. If you are contentious, critical, complaining or just plain cranky, you leave no space for another person to enter into a dialogue marked by mutual respect. You actually push them away, taking up all the space yourself. Curiosity, on the other hand, builds community by valuing the other person’s commitment and contribution.
People begin to trust each other when they feel welcomed. This hospitality is the foundation upon which trust is built. It leads to a willingness to contribute. On the basis of that trust, collaboration is built one conversation after another. Your board will work more efficiently and effectively if you pay attention to the tone, content and impact of your conversations as you build positive relationships among your colleagues.
A good way of reminding board members of the gifts they bring to the relationships that are the board is to begin each meeting with this inviting question – “What are you most proud of doing for this organization since our last meeting?” Creating such a space to review and celebrate contributions honors passion for the cause and solidifies a sense of connection in its service. It sets a positive and welcoming tone for the rest of the meeting as you seek to generate and enable more contribution.
Jazz musicians are an appreciative lot. They are constantly smiling and nodding at the performance of their band mates. They are listening, enjoying, considering how best to contribute and doing their part with creativity and innovation throughout the performance – always with the desire of pleasing the audience. Take another look back at the image on the first page and see how in sync the musicians appear to be with each other.
Astute Conversations are the conversations in which you analyze all the factors that can affect the effectiveness of your organization and in which you make wise decisions about the best use of your resources.
The best boards invite people to serve because of their seasoned wisdom in areas of passion and expertise that are needed to ensure the flourishing of the nonprofit. They seek as members people who can contribute constructively to the analysis of opportunities and challenges. They value members who are not afraid of robust conflict around ideas, but are also self-disciplined enough to refuse to engage in conflict around people.
For these kinds of conversations to have their optimal impact, space needs to be created and sustained for the unfettered consideration of as wide a range of possibilities as can be imagined. That takes time and patience. The conversations may need to be spread over two or more board meetings. Ways may need to be found to continue the conversations between board meetings.
There also needs to be a clear purpose for these conversations. In the end, that purpose is arriving at a decision that will align the resources of the nonprofit with its opportunities.
Further, aligning the analyses and decisions with the long-term sustainability and success of the nonprofit requires a clear statement of the vision, values and mission of the organization. I have found it advantageous to also have a vision and mission statement for the board itself, focused on its particular responsibilities in the organization. These answer what specifically the board promises to be and do to serve the purpose of the nonprofit.
Jazz musicians are continually listening, watching and tracking the flow and evolution of the performance. They analyze and decide what and how best to contribute by paying careful attention to what’s going on and what might be possible. They bring their experience and expertise into the service of the melody being played for the benefit and enjoyment of the audience. The audience picks up on the direction and momentum of that music. The community they create together is moved by a vibe that inspires value. Take another look back at the image on the first page and get a sense of the power of the energy in the middle that aligns the musicians’ analyses and decisions into a powerful performance.
Responsible Conversations are the conversations by which you clarify responsibilities, establish accountabilities and identify the ways in which you will support those implementing the decisions.
Decisions are useless unless implemented. There are two dimensions to implementation that always need to be considered. The first is who will take primary responsibility for making sure the implementation happens. The second is who will support them. Lack of clarity in these matters increases significantly the possibility that those served, those who support the organization, those who are staff and the board members themselves will be frustrated and disappointed.
There is another dimension to the implementation process that is often difficult to accept, but is crucial to success. This has to do with the acceptance of people making mistakes. In jazz, there is a commonly accepted maxim – “There are no mistakes, only opportunities to learn.” Taking reasonable risks in trying new ways of delivering on the promise of the organization is a responsibility of the board. Managing that risk wisely is important, but taking the risk is essential. To create such an environment for positive risk management, board members need to see the risk being taken by everyone as a community, not by individuals stuck out on a limb that’s liable to be cut off when something goes wrong.
There are no mistakes, only opportunities to learn.
People in my workshops and executive staff I coach often complain to me about big egos on their boards. My comment is that I like big egos on my boards, as long as they know how to manage those egos in the service of the organization’s purpose. My experience is that many big egos bring expertise, experience and confidence. When those gifts are used responsibly and used in support of implementing astute decisions, they greatly benefit the work of the organization.
Jazz musicians spend a lot of time developing their unique expertise or voice. They gain confidence as they express and refine that voice through both practice and performance. Throughout this self-development, however, they become more and more aware of how interdependent they are on their fellow musicians. When it comes to performing for their audience, they know they are accountable for specific roles and can count on the support of their colleagues in putting it all together. Take another look at the image on the first page and notice the way they lean into each other and appear to draw on each other’s energies to generate their collective swing.
Trusting conversations are the conversations that establish the criteria for assessing your success. What will you monitor and measure? How will you consider the results of those assessments and use the insights generated by them to revise and refine your priorities and plans?
These days, the best nonprofit boards do rigorous annual evaluations of both their performance as a full board and the performance of each board member. The evaluations are specifically designed to identify how strengths are being used to further the purpose of the organization and what is getting in the way of doing that even better.
Three conditions must be in place for this appreciative evaluation to work well:
1. What is expected of the board as a whole and of each member of the board must be clearly understood by everyone, especially by board and staff. This is best achieved when there are vision, mission and strategic imperatives statements developed for the board itself. In addition, concise but clear board member job descriptions must be in place. Without this kind of clarity, evaluations can be confusing and demoralizing.
2. The questions must be few and focused on what has gone well and what could go better.
3. The tone of the debrief must be positive and appreciative, a celebration of what has been accomplished – collectively and individually – and a consideration of what could change to make it even better.
This approach to evaluation does not avoid the difficult questions about problems the organization is facing, but it does set them into a new context. Practitioners of Appreciative Inquiry talk about SOAR analysis (Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations and Results) rather than SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats). They often use Inner Game theory (Performance = Potential – Interference) to set the realities they face into a more positive framework that inspires and energizes improved performance in service of the purpose.
This is the kind of evaluation that generates trust. It arises from conversations that integrate all of the elements of SMARTer governance into a realistic appreciation of where the organization and the individuals who serve it are at the moment. It also focuses attention on what might happen to improve things for the future. It avoids the common trap of getting stuck in the past.
Jazz musicians evaluate themselves and their groups all the time. You’ll find them between sets huddled together reviewing what just happened, appreciating each other and exploring together new possibilities. Some of those innovative possibilities might just have arisen because someone made what appeared at first to be a mistake. Just imagine the musicians in the image on the first page taking a break and reviewing their performance over a glass of beer or wine.
Get into the Swing of It
Miles Davis was one of the greatest jazz musicians and group leaders of the 20th century. He said he always asked his groups to play their best, then play above that. That’s where great music happened.
I also think that’s where great governance happens, governance that is SMARTer and SMARTer, one conversation after another. The melodies, rhythms and harmonies of those conversations are what determine the quality of governance in your nonprofit. When this process is flowing at its best, people are collaborating effectively in a lively and enjoyable dialogue about ideas that can shape and re-shape the work of the organization. Jazz musicians call this swing. Nonprofit boards could benefit from more of it.
If you decide to show up SMARTer at your next board meeting and encourage your board colleagues to join you in that decision you will enjoy the kind of swing Jamaican-born jazz pianist Monty Alexander describes:
Jazz, at its best, is a situation in which participants willingly support each other, working together as one, each player bringing virtuosity, optimism, mutual respect, good will, the desire to make it feel good.
Every time you engage in a conversation, either at a board meeting or during the many additional things you do to support your nonprofit, you are a jazz musician, playing your voice with passion in the service of the organization’s purpose. Practice doing it well and your organization will enjoy the results.
Brian Fraser is lead provocateur at Jazzthink, where he uses the wit, wisdom, and working of jazz to provoke SMARTer teamwork through speaking, coaching, and workshops. Most of his career has been spent in the nonprofit sector and he works frequently with boards and staff aspiring to improve the presence of their organization.
Please Note: This article was written for Terrie Temkin (ed), You and Your Nonprofit Board, to be published in the In the Trenches series from Charity Channel Press in autumn of 2012.