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Curiouser and curiouser

Adverts for board members do not mention a key attribute for the job, says Tamsin Stirling.

I’ve been thinking about curiosity; people who know me well will chuckle at this – I am a very curious (nosy) person. I really like the following quote which is variously attributed to Dorothy Parker and Ellen Parr: ‘The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity’.

A recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review on how to succeed on a non-profit board makes the case for curiosity being the key to becoming a successful board member[1]. Great board members, it says, are:

  • curious about impact
  • curious about context
  • curious about money
  • curious about people
  • curious about the board as a team.

This article is written in the American context about people from the business sector going onto the boards of non-profit organisations. However, I think that the case it makes is spot on. For me, curiosity is vital to being an effective board member. It is needed both in the sense of being curious within an individual organisation and in stimulating people to look outward to other organisations and sectors.

So how can we structure governance activity to encourage curiosity? The following are just some thoughts.

Firstly, being clear that the culture of the organisation is one which welcomes questioning and challenge through board recruitment and induction processes, as well as within board meetings, and away days. I can’t recall seeing an advertisement for board members that included curiosity in the list of skills, experience and behaviours being sought.

Secondly, attention to board agenda planning and structuring to allow sufficient time to focus on the ‘big issues’ and ensure that papers are in appropriate formats. Given the importance of the role of the chair, it is to be expected that they are involved in this process.

Thirdly, board papers that ask open questions, rather than setting out fully developed proposals, are helpful on at least some agenda items. There are benefits to looking at an issue without being wedded to a particular outcome, instead debating principles and/or options.

Previous board diaries (WHQ issues 104 and 105) looked at thinking environment and generative discussions as examples of techniques that encourage board questioning and contributions. Thinking environment-style board papers ask catalytic questions, while generative discussions may be stimulated by brief papers or through short presentations, with contributions from board and executive team members building on each other.

Fourthly, the role of the chair is core in encouraging curiosity in practice through questioning and constructive challenge, as is the response of the executive team to such questioning. Chairs can intentionally or inadvertently shut discussion down and a defensive response from the executive can discourage board members from asking further questions or lead to an antagonistic discussion or conflict. To quote Nancy Axelrod from her paper Curious Boards:

‘Ideally, the chief executive is secure in inviting a range of views, and the chair possesses the skills to manage group dynamics, facilitate discussions, and encourage those not participating to join in and share their perspectives.’ [2]

She notes that curiosity-driven questioning can be uncomfortable, but that:

‘It is difficult for a group to generate new, often superior, solutions to its problems until it considers views that may be different from its own. It is the very act of asking questions and engaging in conversation with those who think differently that produces new ideas.’

Fifthly, ensuring that the board is sufficiently curious about its own performance and that a culture of inquiry underpins self-evaluation and appraisal. Curious board members really want to know whether things are working as well as they could be and whether there are different ways of doing things. In exploring these issues, they take advantage of incorporating independent and external perspectives.

As well as formal appraisals and governance reviews, some boards take the opportunity to ask themselves questions at the end of each board meeting, such as:

  • did every board member feel that they had the opportunity to contribute and ask the questions that they wanted to?
  • would we change anything for future meetings?
  • are we confident in the performance of the organisation?

Getting this feedback in real time, rather than waiting for a formal board appraisal or governance review, is helpful, for the board as a team, for individual board members and for the chair in terms of whether their style and approach supports positive behaviours.

Lastly, providing opportunities for board members to network with and hear from board members from other organisations in housing and beyond. Hearing how others approach things can stimulate our own thinking about how we might improve things within our organisations.

I would be interested to hear whether board members feel that they are able to exercise curiosity in their role, what helps and what hinders; do get in touch.

Tamsin Stirling can be contacted at tamsin.stirling@dial.pipex.com and on twitter at @TamsinStirling1

[1] ssir.org/articles/entry/how_to_succeed_on_a_nonprofit_board

[2] mapfornonprofits.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Curious_Boards_BoardSource.pdf

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