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Life lessons in building great board relationships

May 7, 2014
by Shannon Brys, Associate Editor
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Although board members are essentially volunteers, their importance and role in the organization should not be taken lightly. In fact, with all of the changes currently occurring in healthcare, a board can make the difference that the organization truly needs.

Mark Ishaug, CEO of Thresholds, the oldest and largest community health organization in Chicago, Ill., believes in the power of the board members. The $60 million organization includes more than 90 different sites, 1,100 employees and 45 board members.

As he celebrates his 30th year of managing and leading boards in the nonprofit world, he spoke to an audience of CEOs and board members at the 2014 National Council for Behavioral Health conference on Tuesday about the life lessons he’s learned in building great board relationships.

Ishaug’s life lessons shared a common theme: they all began with the letter ‘L.’ However, he wanted to point out that one of the lessons would not be logic. “What I’m about to say is logical, I hope. But it is not logic,” he said. “Most of us in our culture rely too heavily on reasoning capacity to make things happen and we have been raised to believe that logic will prevail. Logic in itself will rarely influence people. Most times, logic does not work.”

Look and Listen

Look around at board meetings and observe the way board members are acting. Watch body language and read for signs in their eyes. Are the individuals on their cell phones? Do they look engaged, bored, or confused? Notice the energy in the room.

As the CEO, be attentive to the people in the room by making eye contact, smiling, and nodding. However, Ishaug cautioned not to cross the delicate line – look, but do not peer; look, but do not glare.

“For CEOs, executive directors and otherwise bossy people, we like to have the first and the last word. And often most of the words in between,” he said. “However, it’s amazing how much we can accomplish and learn by listening.”

He noted a recent experience in which he had to lead a very difficult discussion about board members’ fiscal intelligence colliding with their own social and emotional intelligence. Although the issue is still a work in progress, he said they are moving forward because everyone really listened to each other.

“We’re taking the lessons learned from this listening session to move to action,” he said. “I’ve learned that when you hear ‘no’ you just have to listen a little deeper because ‘no’ is a reaction, not a position. Those who react negatively to our proposals just need time to evaluate them and adjust their thinking.”

Love and Laughter

Ishaug uses the word “love” all the time, and in fact, the first thing he said to the audience was “I love boards.”  Singers, movies, television shows, magazine articles, church and faith communities – the word is spoken, sang, and discussed in all of these arenas. “Yet for some reason, we don’t feel like we can talk about love at work or with our boards,” he explained.

If there is an exception to this, it’s him. He tells the board members that he loves Thresholds, the clients, the staff, and even them. It’s akin to a relationship with parents, children, partners, and dogs. Though they may be “annoying” at times, he said, the love still exists.

He explained that the best board meetings at Thresholds are ones that are filled with laughter. It diffuses a tough situation and can completely turn around an individual’s mood. “Laughter is magical,” he said. “This work is so hard and we have an obligation and a duty to make it easier.”

Live and Learn

In every organization there are going to be really good days and really bad days. In either situation, the key is to ensure that the board and staff are committed to learning, growing, and expanding their thinking. The CEO is not exempt from this. CEOs often act as if they know it all, Ishaug explained, and that can be a very powerful for pushing through tough situations, being decisive and producing results. However, it must be a learning organization.

“The CEO must be the best student and the most eager learner of all,” he said. “The truth is that we don’t know it all no matter what we think or how we act. We can be better and we can do better.” The CEO must surround himself with, and learn from, board members who are tougher, smarter, funnier and nicer than him, Ishaug advised. 

Lean in and Lean on

He urged those in attendance to exhibit creativity, passion, enthusiasm, and purpose. “Demonstrate to the board that no one loves the organization more than you,” Ishaug said. “This will inspire the most difficult and challenging board members you have. Your positive energy will wake them up and help them to believe that more and different is possible. Shape them from thinking about the past only and get them focused on the future.”

Additionally, it’s important to recognize that the CEO cannot be both the quarterback and captain of the cheerleading squad at all times. Board members report they are happiest when they have important work to do, so let them handle large tasks and alleviate some pressure, Ishaug advised.

He explained that he leans on his board members all the time –  for money, advice, moral support, sounding boards, pro bono consultations, etc.

Lead and Let go

The CEO position requires the individual to be a leader. Ishaug referred to the CEO as the chief energy officer. Keep up the energy constantly and encourage others, including the senior and junior staff, receptionist, board chair and board members, to lead. Leadership must be embraced and required at all levels by all people, he said.