Be Intentional About Connections and Culture

I spoke to an ED of an organization in the mental health field. They reflected on the past year and some intentional actions that were taken to create connections and trust between board members so that hard decisions could be made. They also spoke of the impact of DEI training and that they are looking forward embracing advocacy.

During COVID, ED Leans Into Board for Support

We have a big board – 30 people. We are in the mental health field.

Reflecting on the past year and more, I would say that I have leaned into the board in ways that I would not have before. The board has also really stepped up. They have been supportive and provided a place where I could show my stress, so I didn’t need to do that with my leadership team.

We made some significant decisions during this time. We were doing our strategic plan just as we moved into the pandemic. We faced funding cuts from government programs that added to the pressure everyone felt. Then we had staff issues. Retention of staff in the mental health field has always been a major risk factor. We started seeing attrition – previously, we had not been hit with it in the same way as other organizations had. We had to increase salaries. And we had to figure out how to make that work financially.

I turned to the board when in normal times, I might have gone more to my senior leadership team. Not that I have not been transparent with staff, but I could see that they had challenges adapting their programs, leading the people they supervise, and dealing with personal issues. I wanted to mitigate the intensity of stress on them. So, there were some conversations I had with the board only, things around my own vulnerability and my sense of the challenges we were facing. I think it was necessary to turn to the board to build their trust.

I don’t know what the experience would have been like if we were meeting in person instead of via zoom. But with zoom, we have people showing up in bigger numbers and more consistently even if they are out of town or on vacation. More voices are being heard. And people come to multiple meetings – they show up at strategic planning meetings as well as board meetings, for example. It has been good. Board members show up. They ask more questions. They are more involved and engaged. Doing things in zoom has been useful in that way. Before COVID, we had options for people who wanted to call in. We had a phone that looked like something from Star Trek sitting in the middle of the room, but people couldn’t really hear well or participate easily.

I had to be thoughtful about the tone and the culture that I set at the agency. How do we come together as a community? How do we create positive connections? As an organization that includes both board and staff, I feel that our intentionality led to much stronger connections.

Slow Down and Check In

I found that we were moving too fast. These were big issues. I had to slow down the pace. It required a different cadence and process. We had to get everything out at board meetings and talk about issues across multiple meetings. There was lots of important content. We took on big issues and spent more time looking at them in depth. I was also intentional about relationships. I did one-on-ones with all my board. Just to check in. They used to have those meetings, but they were about asking what their donation would be. I made it an ask-free meeting. This was a general check in. Which was good. The meetings helped me build relationships and trust as well as find out how board members feel about the organization and the board.

Another way to check in and connect was through peer mentors. This was happening a bit before, but we started being intentional. We had committee leads check in with committee members. With mentors, we worked hard to make sure we matched the right board members to each other. I think it has been a plus. People are connecting outside of formal time. They have connected not just around specific board things but as people as well which has been a huge value for all. My read is that we have deeper connection with the board.

DEI Training Led to Important Conversations

We did DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) training with the board which was another way to grow connections. Some board members have done a lot of this work, through their day jobs or lived experience. Others have not. It allowed people to connect on a different level, on a social justice level. The training was part of our strategic goals. But it has been intentional on my part. DEI work is something I have been engaging with for over 20 years and it is hugely important to me. I wanted us to have conversations amongst board members. How do we really reflect the community? How do we get people on the board who are tethered back to the communities? How do we ensure it is not just tokenism? This training allowed the board to connect as a community in a way that is different than coming to meetings to make decisions.

Create a Culture that Embraces Advocacy

Looking forward, I want to be intentional about creating a greater understanding of and a culture that embraces advocacy. We could have used this skill set earlier around Medicaid challenges. What happens is that the government asks for some services and then pays rates that don’t cover those services. The government also mandates services, but we want to work in partnership with community to define what services are needed.  We have faced this issue for a long time. We have grown our private fundraising to fill the gaps and will continue to, but we also need to advocate for a better situation.

We need board leadership with skills and experience around advocacy. It is not something that has been part of our culture. Sure, every once in a while, there has been an opportunity where the board might engage, but not much. Going forward we know it is important. We want to be intentional, so we put it in our strategic plan. Since board members don’t necessarily understand how to advocate, they need to develop that skill set. We need training and a plan to actualize the effort. I want the board to own this. Advocacy is not only aligned with our mission, but it has also made people want to lean in more.

By being intentional about making connections, about DEI work, and about advocacy, we have seen an emotional and tonal shift. Board members are excited about what we do and about equity and inclusion. They want to help us make an impact.

Lessons Learned

  • Lean into the board in times of crisis to reduce stress on staff
  • Be intentional about culture and connections
  • Move slowly to allow for multiple and thorough conversations about important issues
  • Find topics such as DEI training and advocacy to engage board members in ways that further your impact

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