Episode 174: Effectively Engaging a Client’s Board of Directors—with Ryan Ripperton
Deb Zahn: I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting podcast. On this podcast, we're going to talk about an absolutely critical group of stakeholders that are within organizations and within companies that has to be working really well for organizations and companies to be able to achieve what they want to achieve, particularly when you're working with them, and that is the board of directors. I brought on somebody who knows all about how they work, how they should work, how they often don't work, and he's going to walk us through some of the strategies and techniques he uses when he's either working with boards, or he's working with leaders that are trying to work with their boards, so lots of great information in this. Let's get started. Hi, I want to welcome to my show today Ryan Ripperton. Ryan, welcome to the show.
Ryan Ripperton: Thanks so much for having me, Deb.
Deb Zahn: We are going to have so much fun today talking about some nice juicy stuff, but let's start off, tell my listeners what you do.
Ryan Ripperton: Well, I am the president of Ryan Ripperton Consulting, and I work with nonprofit leaders to help quiet the chaos, define clear strategy, and achieve sustained results. What that means in practice is that I'm working with nonprofit executives, and that can be executive director or CEO, that title changes depending on the organization, and boards of directors or boards of trustees to help on those big-picture strategic issues for the organization, and I'm happy to talk more about this.
Deb Zahn: What I want everybody doing, and I do this occasionally, is I want them to rewind how you answered when I asked that question because it was so perfect. It's obvious that you've worked on what your value proposition is, you're clear about who you work with, you say it in a really good, clear, engaged way. The calm the chaos, I feel like I need that T-shirt desperately.
Ryan Ripperton: Don't we all?
Deb Zahn: I want folks to listen to that because when somebody asks you what you do, that's what you want it to look and feel like.
Ryan Ripperton: Well, thank you. You're right, I have put quite a bit of work in trying to get the phrasing right to make sure to hit the key points that I'm trying to get across, to speak the language of my clients because I am in my former life the type of person that I'm now trying to help, so I was able to connect with what their emotional touchpoints and pain points are, and I have learned from the best because I have a couple of really great mentors in my consulting journey, you being one of them.
Deb Zahn: Wonderful. Well, thank you. I'm so glad it worked because you also hit on, I know we're going to get into the content, but this was just so good, you mentioned emotions, which is the reason calm the chaos, or terminology like that is so effective is it emotionally resonates with people. When you were in ED, and if you heard somebody say "Calm the chaos," you'd be like, "I need that. Whatever that is, I want that."
Ryan Ripperton: Yeah. I would feel like, "Oh, my gosh. They see me."
Deb Zahn: Yeah, exactly.
Ryan Ripperton: They know what's going on in my world because truly in the nonprofit sector. That is really what it feels like. It feels like chaos almost all the time. A lot of times in the nonprofit space, we feel like we guilt ourselves for that, or we feel like we're not good at our work, but the fact of the matter is we're usually doing what would be in any other circumstance three or four different jobs, if not more, and we're doing it for something that we feel like is life or death, and so we carry it around, we put every ounce of the weight of that in our backpack, and carry it around with us day and night.
Deb Zahn: Yep, exactly, exactly, and knowing that is what helps you go out and help other people do that. Well, we're going to talk about one aspect of the work you do with nonprofits. I also work with a lot of nonprofits and so boards of directors are a key part of nonprofits and how they function and how they operate, so for those that have encountered them or don't quite understand, or maybe they did, and they ran screaming from that type of work, why is it that boards of directors for organizations need time and attention, such that consultants can be really helpful?
Ryan Ripperton: Boards are a very unique entity in the nonprofit space and sometimes you'll hear people use a phrase like "necessary evil," which you will never hear me say other than in the context of saying that sometimes other people say it because at the end of the day, boards of directors are so important to the success of the organization and they play a critical role really in achieving the mission. The best way I have heard this described is not that the staff works for the board or any other kind of hierarchical structure like that, it is that the staff and the board both work for the mission and they have their own unique set of responsibilities in order to achieve the mission. I am a very visual person, so I tend to picture this an old Greek building or something with the triangular top and the pillars, but in a nonprofit sector, there are two pillars. There's a staff pillar and there's a board pillar, and if either of those entities is not holding up the weight of that roof, down it comes.
Deb Zahn: That's right. I love that. We're going to start off with the good version then we're going to get into some of the issues. What does a strong, effective board look like? If you were looking at exactly the beautiful version you'd love to see, what would some of the elements of that be?
Ryan Ripperton: I define that there are five roles of a board. You could ask nonprofit experts this question and you'd get as many answers as you would experts, but I define it into five categories. I believe that the board sets the direction for the organization, the mission and vision, the strategic plan.
They attract resources, which is perhaps one of the areas of the least positive performance by boards. They attract resources. That's fundraising, but it's also friend-raising. It's advocating in the community for the organization and helping to build partnerships with other like-minded organizations.
They hire and support the executive. That's the search process, goal-setting for the executive evaluating, making sure to keep up with compensation needs for the executive, and also providing thought partnership alongside the executive, not thinking of that as a managerial relationship, but as a thought partnership relationship.
The fourth category is providing oversight. That's policy, that's financial stewardship and oversight. It's monitoring the goals of the organization, and also watching out for risk management, where we have exposures that need to be managed.
Then the final one is that the board's got to manage its own affairs. The board is a self-governing entity. There isn't a higher power than a board inside an organization, so they've got to be responsible for their own stuff, and if stuff's not going well for the board, that's on the board, and if it's going great, that means you've got a really good board. That's things like, are the committees functioning, are the board members fully engaged? Do they have a good life cycle map and do they know how to assess their own performance?
Deb Zahn: Now because I've worked with a lot of boards myself, I've seen all kinds of different versions where the board gets brought out for required meetings because they have to, and it's in the bylaws, and then every few years they do a really boring strategic plan that nobody ever looks at again, and then the other side where the board is all in, and in fact, so in that they're into the weeds of the operation. I'm sure you've seen it, too. Describe a little bit more within those functions that you described. What's the sweet spot in terms of what optimally their
engagement would look like?
Ryan Ripperton: The sweet spot for a board is for the board to be fully engaged and actively involved, but to know what they're supposed to be working on, not am I all down in the executive and the staff's business and making sure that they're doing what they're supposed to do, and not just making stuff up or inventing new programs, the board needs to have a clear understanding of what collective responsibility is and also their individual responsibility so that then they can work hard at that, and do that exceptionally well. The benefits of that pay dividends to the organization over years and years, that can be increased revenue. It can be higher retention among the staff, especially in the executive seat, and it can just be at the end of the day, a more enjoyable process of serving on the board because how many people do you hear or say, "Wow, I love serving on this board?" I mean, you do hear it, but you don't hear it as often as I'd like to think that we should be hearing that.
Deb Zahn: That's right, and it can certainly either not help existing chaos, or it can create chaos, but let's talk about some of those common issues that you see with how boards are actually functioning and some of the ways that you help organizations address those, so they get to that sweet spot.
Ryan Ripperton: Well, there are lots of ways that boards can become dysfunctional, either at the micro or the macro level. I think was it Patrick Lencioni that wrote Five Dysfunctions of a Team? Is it five? Is that right?
Deb Zahn: I think it's five. I believe I've seen 80, but I know that there's at least five.
Ryan Ripperton: Exactly. That was the point that I was going to make. Thank you for beating me to it, it is that there are way more than five ways that a board can become dysfunctional. I do believe that starts at the individual level that can manifest as board members. I mean, the cliche example is dead weight. This is a board member who doesn't show up, or if they show up, they show up late, and they leave early, and they never answer emails, and they have to be chased down for an annual gift to the organization, and they never fulfill the responsibilities that they're there to do. We all know that those board members exist, and I don't know a single organization that hasn't dealt with that, or frankly, isn't dealing with it all the time. We just want to deal with that problem as infrequently as possible. There are some strategies that can help to prevent it. Once it's started, it's hard to undo.
But other ways that individual board members can kind of get in the way is when they start getting into the day-to-day operations of the organization. Now, I should pause and say that I'm making some assumptions here. There's obviously a really wide range in the nonprofit sector. You've got tiny organizations that are all volunteer-led, there's no staff at all, so that board obviously has to be more of a working board where they have assigned responsibilities. You also have multimillion or nine-figure-budget, maybe 10-figure-budget nonprofit organizations, and the role of the board there is perhaps a more corporate, and obviously, that's a different end of the spectrum, but the vast majority of our sector is floating here in the middle, where you have a board of directors, maybe that board has somewhere between seven and 30 members and the staff is, might be one person. It might be 10, it might be 20, but when board members start thinking of themselves as unpaid staff members, that's when we start having problems there.
Deb Zahn: Yeah, and I just flashed on many circumstances I've seen where that's true. If they don't have to because they're not a small organization and they start getting into the weeds of operation, which I've seen, and I've seen them think that their job is to tell the executive director, or even go directly to other staff and direct them in their jobs, let's talk about the ways to prevent it, and then the ways to intervene if it's already in play.
Ryan Ripperton: Well, the number one and very clear way to prevent it is to have exceptionally good onboarding and orientation for board members. That process begins way back at recruitment. This is before the board member is even asked to serve on the board, the board members and the executive, assuming that they're participating in those conversations need to be crystal clear about what this board is, what its culture is, the way it does, its work, how it defines its responsibilities, and what it does and doesn't work on because you don't want to get a board member into the pipeline to join the board who sees that a different way. There certainly are successful board members who might see something differently than the organization, and that's fine. Maybe they need to serve somewhere else. But each organization needs to develop what its ideal board member profile would be and recruit people who match that profile.
Then in the onboarding and orientation process, I also see nonprofit organizations all the time, just presume that everybody knows how to be on a board. I don't know anybody who has a degree in serving on a nonprofit board. That's just not a thing, so it's really important for nonprofits to take on the responsibility, this would be both the board and the executive and the staff, to take on the responsibility, to teach people how to be successful board members, how to read a financial statement, how a board meeting should be organized, what are their responsibilities, how to pipe up with a question that it's OK to ask a probing or challenging question in a board meeting rather than to sit silently, and not say anything, so it's important that we train board members to be successful rather than just throwing them in the boardroom, and expecting them to know what to do.
Deb Zahn: Yeah, I love that for prevention. Let's say an organization is listening to you and they're like, "Oh, I wish I had done that, but I didn't, so now I have a situation where I have a board member, a few board members who they don't know those boundaries, I for whatever reason didn't teach them to them," so now we have a situation where you either have folks who are very disengaged, or folks who are overly engaged, how would you help them intervene so that they get it on the right track?
Ryan Ripperton: It's a great question and it has two different answers for the two different board members that you just described. The one that's not engaged is probably not going to reengage, even if they promise that they will, they probably won't realistically speaking, so it's really important for the board chair in that situation, not the chief executive, but the board chair to ask for a sit-down meeting with the board member and say, "Hey, I've noticed that you haven't been able to come to board meetings lately. You haven't been very communicative, and when you've been there, you haven't really participated. I want to make sure that we value all the contributions you have made to this organization over the term of your service and nobody's going to feel badly about you if you've decided that maybe being on this board isn't for you right now. If that's the case, then we would be glad to help you exit the board and keep you engaged in other ways, if board service isn't for you right now, and then we can be working on recruiting who will sit in that seat moving forward."
I think in that situation, it's a tactful conversation that takes the emotion out of it talks about the underperformance of the board member in sort of very quantitative, or at least black-and-white terms, but that addresses it, and just takes it as a given and says, "But we still like you. We still like you as a person, but if the board's not for you, it's OK."
Deb Zahn: Yeah. I love that because that addresses multiple needs all at once.
Ryan Ripperton: That's right. Then in the other example that you gave where you have maybe a board member who maybe they're retired, maybe they're not retired, but this is the person that you sit around and think, "Where do they get the time? Where do they find time to send a 13-page email? Where do they find time to show up at the organization's office every day? Where do they find time to come up with all these ideas, whether they're hair-brained or not, where do they find time to think about, and poke in all these ways?"
In that situation, I think I would say there's a two-prong strategy. The first one again is the board chair intervening and saying, "Hey, I can see how passionate you are about this organization and it's manifesting in all these ways. Every once in a while, those are really helpful, but often, they're also getting in the way. I would really love to take all of your energy and put it on this special project, or maybe these one or two key responsibilities, chair this committee."
Pull them back into a clearly defined board role and give them lots of responsibility and them put their energies there but make it clear. People are smart, they know what you're doing, so don't pretend that you're not asking them to change. You need to say, "I'm reassigning you. I want you to do these things so that you'll stop doing this other stuff. I respect you, but I want to make sure it's clear. I need you to stop doing these other things, but I want to keep all your energy on this organization." But the reality is that they also may have that misaligned expectation about what being on a board is, in which case they may eventually or soon opt to leave, and at the end of the day, it's OK when board members leave because it gives us an opportunity to recruit a new person to their chair who's aligned with where the organization needs to go next, not where it was yesterday.
Deb Zahn: That's great. I love that. I love that it's not passive-aggressive, which I can't stand. When you are first engaged with an organization and you don't know a lot about the organization yet, but there may be a hint that there might be something going on with their board that needs some attention, what are some of the first things as a consultant you do to get to how you might be able to help them.
Ryan Ripperton: So many times the pathway to becoming engaged with a nonprofit organization is through one person. It might be the chief executive, or it might be one board member, it might be a board chair, or maybe a committee chair, and so I can ask lots of questions of that person, and often, I'll get their perspective, which more often than not is probably right, but I also have to be very careful about not allowing that to bias my eventual view of the situation because I may be getting a biased viewpoint from the first person that I talked to, so avoiding that kind of confirmation bias is really important. Oh, Deb, now, I forgot your question.
Deb Zahn: That's OK. When you first go into an organization, you get a little hint that there might be something up with the board, but you don't know, and you're checking your biases, which I think is great. What do you do next? How do you really assess what's truly going on?
Ryan Ripperton: I think at that point, after having that initial conversation, that's often the pathway into the nonprofit organization, I do two things. One is I want to look at everything. I have developed an online questionnaire using my CRM to be able to gather every possible document that they can give me. The bylaws, annual reports, board minutes, anything that they feel comfortable giving me, providing confidentiality. It will help me understand where they are.
Then I have as many conversations as is humanly possible. A one-to-one conversation, almost always yields the best information and perspective. Then I have to of paint a picture using that palette of perspectives to be able to create what I feel is a clear assessment of the state of the organization.
Deb Zahn: I love that. Then one of the things, obviously, that matters so much with having a strong, effective board is how an executive director/CEO engages with them. Starting with that, you did that assessment, you're now going to paint that picture, how do you help whoever the lead is executive director understand that something is worth paying attention to as it relates to the board? They might not get it, so how do you help them understand why this other pillar matters to their success?
Ryan Ripperton: I think the key to inspiring change in a nonprofit organization is to be able to show them both not just the promise of a better tomorrow, but also some examples where that has worked, not necessarily in my own consulting practice, but just to be able to look at the organizations.
The book Good to Great is fantastic. It has a little nonprofit supplement that Jim Collins wrote after that that's really wonderful at translating into the nonprofit sector, but that whole premise of the book is built around comparing organizations, and the question to the nonprofit is: Which kind of organization do you want to be? Do you want to be an organization that is continuing to struggle, or is always worrying about where tomorrow's dollar is going to be, or always feeling like you've got high turnover, attrition, whether in the staff or the board? Or do you want to be that successful organization that just always seems to have it together and always seems to be moving in the right direction and people talk about it with enthusiasm and when they say, "I'm on the board of X, Y, Z organization," they smile when they say it? There's little nonverbal, things that clue in people to the idea that this organization really has it together. Usually, it's that there is some work to be done on the dynamics within either the board, the staff, or sometimes both, and sometimes the relationship between the two.
Deb Zahn: I love that. I love that you also, again, paint the picture, and you also make the outcome emotional, that when people say, "I'm on that board," they smile, and they have that sense of pride. If I'm an executive director, I want to hear things like that because I don't want just a bored board, excuse the expression. But let's talk about what else. With executive directors, which I also know you do some coaching, what are some of the typical things that you have to coach them on as it relates to their board?
Ryan Ripperton: A lot of times executive directors will also not know how to deal with their board. Many nonprofit organizations, most I would say, are not run by someone who either has maybe a nonprofit management degree, or has long experience in working with boards, so they're either mimicking things that they've seen done before, or they're just trying to figure out how they're supposed to interact with these people. There's a great movie from the '90s called Office Space.
Deb Zahn: Oh, yes.
Ryan Ripperton: The guy talks about having, I think he says seven or nine bosses. Well, at my last job, I had 30. I had 30 bosses. Well, I didn't, really, I had one boss. It was the board of directors and it had 30 members, but those individuals weren't each my boss. I mean, the board was the boss, and so the relationship between the executive and the board needs to be studied.
This is something that nonprofit executives can read up on. There are tons of free content available on the internet. There's wonderful classes and resources available through BoardSource and some other organizations that have content out there to help describe what a healthy relationship is. If an executive director feels that the board always has their thumb on the executive director, then the relationship's not right, and if the executive director feels like the board is just a bother and I just have to get through board meetings and tell them what they want to hear so that they'll go away, that's also a problem. Those are the two extremes, and we need to have neither of those because in the middle of that is a much healthier place to live as an organization.
Deb Zahn: Yeah, yeah. I've seen the boards essentially say, "Oh, they're doing great. Whatever. I don't pay too much attention." They have this covered until they don't and then they pay attention. Are there any other either must-dos or never-do that you would like to put out into the world as it relates to boards?
Ryan Ripperton: I think with regard to boards, I think that boards always need to take their responsibility very seriously for their own relationship and especially for their relationship collectively with the executive director. Once we define how important the role of the board is and understanding that their relationship with the executive is a key part of that set of responsibilities, it can lead to dissatisfaction and departure of executives when the relationship is not healthy.
But so many times, boards have a little bit of a, "Well, I don't think it's my job individually, so I don't know whose job it is to make sure that we have a healthy relationship with the executive director and through them to the staff," and so nobody does it, and the board doesn't pay attention to compensation, the organization's budget has doubled, but nobody's thought about whether the executive director deserves a raise or not. Nobody's asked the executive director lately how they feel that they're doing in their job, or what they feel their goals are. The board isn't conducting an annual performance evaluation and goal-setting session with the executive. When that relationship starts becoming an area of neglect is when executives leave for greener pastures and that can be really disruptive to our organization, so boards really need to pay close attention to that.
Deb Zahn: I love it. Now, let me ask this for someone, and this is where I'm going to admit to you, now, I want to say to you that we scheduled this prior to me making this decision, but I am about to start a nonprofit, so the next question I'm going to ask you, it's for my cat rescue, and I am currently picking board members, so this conversation is very timely. If a new organization is being formed, and obviously, part of forming that is you have to make decisions about your board, you have to adhere to, you have certain state regulations, but you also want a board that's the real thing in the way that you described, so what's your top advice for, if you were talking to someone who has not made any mistakes yet because they haven't actually set it up, what would you tell them would really set this up for success in terms of how they select their board?
Ryan Ripperton: For a brand-new organization, I would say that selecting board members that are very passionate about the mission of the organization is primary. You'll often hear, "Well, each board needs a lawyer. Every board needs somebody from city or county government. Every board needs this. Every board needs that." I don't think that's as essential at the beginning. I think what you're looking for is deep passion for the mission and the work of the organization, and a willingness to learn the role of the board as it pertains to that mission. I do also want to lift up, though, whether it's a brand new organization, like your cat rescue or a very young organization, really, any organization, how important it is for nonprofit sector to progress quickly on issues of inclusion, diversity, equity, and access. Many organizations say they want to do this, and very few do, and I think it's really important for a young organization to be thinking about how do I make sure that this board reflects the community that it serves from the beginning.
Deb Zahn: That's wonderful. I am actually taking a program specifically for equity and animal welfare to do exactly that before I'd make decisions that I end up making the wrong decisions because I didn't think of it through an equity lens, so I love that you added that. Obviously, there are a lot of folks out there that could use your help, so where can they find you?
Ryan Ripperton: The best place to go is my name, Ryan Ripperton. That's with two ps, so R-Y-A-N R-I-P-P-E-R-T-O-N dot com. From there, they can see the range of my services, they can connect with me on various social media platforms and see some of the blog articles that I've written on some of these topics.
Deb Zahn: Wonderful. I will have that all in the show notes. This is the big question, you know it's coming. How do you bring balance to your life, however you define that?
Ryan Ripperton: Well, I know that we're on a podcast, and so most people won't be able to see me, but Deb, I know that you can see behind me that I have the word "Dad" on this bookshelf behind me.
Deb Zahn: Oh, yeah.
Ryan Ripperton: I was a nonprofit executive for 19 years. I worked in the nonprofit sector directly for 23-plus years. When I made the decision in 2021 coming out of the pandemic to pursue my dream of doing nonprofit consulting, part of the calculus on that is that I wanted to be able to have a more flexible schedule and spend time with my family, and so even as my consulting business has been growing and there are more and more demands on my time, I keep asking myself and reminding myself the why behind this move into consulting, and that is my family. I love my wife, I love my kids, and it gives me great joy to be able to spend more time with them and be physically, mentally, and emotionally present in a room. That is how I maintain balance.
Deb Zahn: I love that answer. Well, Ryan, I'm so thrilled to have you on this. Not the first time we've met, obviously, but I was so delighted to have you come on. I will tell people that absolutely follow you for sure on LinkedIn. You post great stuff. I actually took some of what you posted and shared it with a client that was having the exact problem you were describing. It was kind of like funny memes that you posted, they saw it, and they're like, "Oh, my God, that's my life," so very relevant to anybody who works with any kind of organization, whether it's nonprofit or not, so I appreciate you coming on the show and sharing this great wisdom with us.
Ryan Ripperton: Well, shameless plug to you, which is that I have listened to every minute of every single episode of this podcast, so I was very humbled and a little bit nervous when you invited me to come on the show after I have listened to your wisdom and that of your guests for hundreds of episodes now. I just really appreciate the work that you're doing, of course, in your own consulting career, but especially for those of us who are getting out there as my consulting has started to take off now at this point that has been built on the mentorship that in part I've gotten from your podcast and your course and your other resources, and I've trusted the process, even when it felt like it wasn't working, and lo and behold, it has. I thank you from the bottom of my heart to help for helping me start off on this journey.
Deb Zahn: Thank you so much, Ryan.
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