CRITICAL CONVERSATIONS: inquiry, insight, impact


Non-profit boards come in three flavours: those that are neutral, passively sitting on the sidelines cheering the organization on; those that do more harm than good, damaging an organization through dysfunction or conflict; and those that take the organization to the next level, contributing vision and value. Boards, with all their strengths and flaws, will continue to be with us as they are legally mandated to oversee and be accountable for organizational performance.

Boards exist in a state of dynamic tension. How could they not – when they bring together individual board members from different perspectives, backgrounds and sectors; and then ask them to meet the often conflicting expectations of funders, donors, clients, legislators, staff and community?

In the last few decades academics, consultants and CEOs have weighed in on the need to enhance the effectiveness of the board’s work and the quality of board members. During this period the nature and focus of the board’s work has changed and expectations have grown. In the past, boards focused internally on establishing and growing an organization. Boards today are expected to act as stewards, direction-setters, champions, and to serve as the accountability body. The board is also expected to connect the organization to various communities and to be aware of the broader system and the organization’s contribution within that system.

Today’s board members are diverse, intelligent and passionate. We argue that ‘critical conversations’ can be used to access and engage diverse talents within the boardroom and assist the board in fulfilling its multi-faceted role.

Leading strategist Henry Mintzberg, when asked about the value of boards, likened them to “bumblebees buzzing around the heads of CEOs” (Governance as Leadership, p. 28). CEOs must attend to the buzzing… and focusing the buzz on critical topics improves the conversation.

Critical Conversations

The power of conversation should not be under-estimated as a vehicle through which boards can reach sound decisions, add value, and exercise leadership.

In their book Governance as Leadership, Chait, Ryan and Taylor introduced the ‘fiduciary’, ‘strategic’ and ‘generative’ as three modes of governance that boards must engage in to fulfil their various roles and responsibilities. These modes begin to frame critical conversations.

In the fiduciary mode (oversight), the board focuses on the stewardship of assets – e.g. the efficient use of resources, fiscal accountability, risk management and the operational oversight.

In the strategic mode (foresight), the board acts as strategist in partnership with senior staff. In this mode the board thinks and acts strategically – e.g. setting direction and planning for the future. This involves monitoring the changing environment, and considering the implications for the organization.

The generative mode (insight) is about sense-making, framing and reframing problems, questioning assumptions and creative thinking.

Many boards tend to focus their discussions at the fiduciary and strategic levels, but in today’s volatile and uncertain environment, employing all three modes is crucial to helping the board and organization understand and respond to complex issues.

conversationFocused inquiry driven by powerful questions engages the three modes, accesses diversity of thinking and uncovers new strategies to solve persistent problems. One non-profit CEO described the value of one board member’s persistent, insightful questions as causing her to “sharpen her pencil” and arrive better prepared for board meetings.

This blog series is designed to orient board members and senior leaders to critical topics that are not always addressed during regular board meetings. The topics we have selected are informed by powerful conversations we have facilitated with different clients over the years. These topics are ‘critical’ because they have implications for organizational impact and sustainability, and support the board in fulfilling its leadership and stewardship roles.

Engaging in these conversations, individual board members develop the knowledge and skills to serve as ambassadors, enhance their generative thinking capacity, and acquire a clearer line of sight between their governance work and mission results.

At the organizational level the conversations generate more nuanced understanding of external trends and forces, implications and opportunities; new insights into problems and assumptions; and innovative strategies. An organization’s ability to continuously adapt and evolve leads to greater resilience and mission impact. Finally, a board that makes a difference attracts and retains quality, committed board members.

The Series

“Critical Conversations in the Boardroom” provides a framework for designing meaningful conversations that will add value to an organization. In each post we present the context and rationale for each topic, identify sample fiduciary, strategic and generative questions boards can use to design powerful and engaging conversations as well as related resources (e.g. articles, books and tools).

Question types

Questions fuel conversations, and developing powerful questions is a craft. Powerful questions are simple, clear, thought-provoking, energize a group, surface assumptions, and expand possibilities (Brown et al, 2002). They invite inquiry and discovery and require a group to engage ‘both/and’ thinking. They engage the board in discussions that are meaningful on multiple levels, engaging heads and hearts.

In some cases, the conversations lead to decisions, while in other cases, the conversation is an end in itself. The purpose may be to engage different perspectives and expand collective understanding. The chart below highlights how each mode can be accessed through different kinds of questions.

Fiduciary oversight mode

Strategic foresight mode

Generative insight mode

Questions focus on

  • Exploring the facts… there may be a financial or sustainability dimension
  • Monitoring of performance or compliance
  • Developing, reviewing or assessing adherence to policies
Questions focus on

  • Developing strategies to leverage internal strengths or address weaknesses
  • Identifying and analyzing the implications of changes in the external environment
  • Determining how to respond to emerging challenges and opportunities
Questions focus on

  • Clearly defining and making sense of a problem
  • Surfacing and questioning assumptions
  • Crafting both/and solutions to complex problems


Making Time for Critical Conversations

We know board agendas are often jam-packed leaving limited time for in-depth discussion. Some boards make time for conversations that matter by using a ‘consent agenda’ to package and receive regular reports in one motion. Consent agenda items are distributed to board members as part of the board package for review, and are not discussed during the meetings, unless the board requests a discussion. Two articles below describe consent agendas and considerations for using them.

We hope you will consider the topics we’ve outlined and make time for critical conversations. The sample questions we will be providing can be adapted to your own situation and build your board’s fiduciary, strategic and generative thinking capacity. We can hear the bumblebees buzzing.

Post 1: “To give or not to give” is not THE question: Boards and fundraising

Ruth Armstrong and Sandi Trillo, VISION Management Services

Recommended Reading

Consent agenda. David Renz, A Board Resource Tool from the Midwest Center for Nonprofit Leadership.

Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards. Richard Chait, William Ryan and Barbara E. Taylor. Wiley. 2004.

Governance as leadership: an interview with Richard P. Chait. Great Boards, Summer 2005. Bader & Associates Governance Consultants.

Moments of Impact – How to Design Strategic Conversations That Accelerate Change. Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon. Simon &Schuster 2014.

On Dialogue. David Bohm. Routledge, 2nd edition, 2004.

Strategic questioning: engaging people’s best thinking. Juanita Brown, David Isaacs, Eric Vogt and Nancy Margulies. The Systems Thinker. Vol. 13, No. 9. November 2002.

The consent agenda: A tool for improving governance. BoardSource 2006.

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