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Take it to the Next Level: Understand and Challenge the Assumptions that keep your Board stuck.

As a trainer, consultant, and peer reviewer for The Standards for Excellence:® An Ethics and Accountability Code for the Nonprofit Sector, I teach best practices in board governance. It astounds me how many times people push back and say “well, we don’t do it that way,” when I describe how their boards ought to function. While the simple question is “do you want to follow best practices or not?” it is often more complicated than that whether or not a board will embrace and follow them, especially when they have to empower then rely on the Executive Director to create an effective structure for the board. Why are people so reluctant to embrace changing their board behavior even if it is the right thing to do?

The answer lies in understanding that assumptions and hidden competing commitments will keep us stuck. This month, it has been 20 years since two Harvard professors, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey published an article in Harvard Business Review entitled “The Real Reason People Won’t Change.” Their book Immunity to Change was published in 2009. I learned about this work a few years later when a client asked me if I could read it and incorporate the content into an upcoming training program. After reading the book, which ended with the caution “don’t try this at home,” I immediately signed up for their facilitator workshop offered through Minds at Work ( What I learned was life-changing, both personally and professionally, and this approach has become the “intel inside” much of our work at Strategy Solutions: identify and challenge the assumptions that keep people stuck.

How do we do this?

1. Create a “safe space” for honesty and candor. This must be done with understanding and sensitivity. It helps to have a neutral third party assist because the goal is to help the group become more effective, not to point out personal flaws in one or more individuals’ beliefs or character.

2. Ask and answer a series of questions designed to understand the assumptions and commitments that underlie “board blunder” behavior. Avoiding Board Blunders ( Often, the most difficult thing for each of us is to admit is that we are wrong in our assumptions about the role of the board, and what we “don’t know what they don’t know” about the principles of good board governance. Additionally, the Executive Director must “rethink” how they approach their role and provide staff support to the board. This forces them to challenge their assumptions about “who is in charge of what,” but will pay great dividends in terms of performance.

3. Develop a ‘strategic action plan’ that outlines the activities and support needed from the board to help advance the strategic plan. While many organizations have goals and objectives, most do not go through the exercise of outlining tactical plans that guide the alignment of the board and staff to advance the implementation of the plan. This is a critical success factor.

4. Create a process to ‘live into” new roles and behaviors. It takes some practice to challenge assumptions and not fall into familiar patterns of behavior.

Don’t be afraid to allow a professional to guide your board to learn and apply best practices within the context of your board work. It can make all the difference in the world.

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