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Poor Internal Communication and the Board (Part 2 of 3)

In part one of this three-part essay, we looked at typical situations and outcomes in organizations where communication is not a priority.  If any of those rang true to your experience, I hope I’ve convinced you to become an agent of change.  This week, in part two, we’ll tackle self-assessment.

Before returning to the subject, however, I want to extend a hearty thank-you to all those readers who caught my film history error.  It was not George Kennedy who told Paul Newman they had, “a failure to communicate;” it was Strother Martin.  And that scene did not happen in Hud; it took place in Cool Hand Luke.  If you haven’t seen them, both are terrific movies, from the days of Newman’s most charismatically rebellious roles.  They provide a really wonderful window into early ’60s cool and the emerging buck-the-establishment era.  Even for those of us who were there at the time, they serve as invigorating reminders.

Okay.  Back to the topic at hand.  How do you create an organizational culture in which people actually communicate with one another?

Gotcha–that’s a trick question.  There is no one method.  There is, however, a useful bag of tricks, for which you will have to wait until part three of the series, in two weeks.  This week, we’re going to explore what you need to do before you even reach for the bag: know your organization: its people, its structure, its personality.  You can’t make changes until you have a sense of what you need to change.

Self-Assessment is Key

Answer these questions to get a sense of where you are starting out:

  • Is the organization a large, formal place with a large number of staff members, many of whom have never even met most of the board?  Or is it a smaller, informal place, where board and staff members wander the halls and bump into one another, creating opportunities to talk?
  • When people do communicate, even if they do so less frequently or effectively than they should, how does communication take place?  Do they typically rely on face-to-face conversation?  Voice mail messages?  Meetings, with white boards, handouts, and everyone taking notes?  Email?  An endless flow of paper?
  • Are there people who should be in various information loops yet always seem not to be?  Who are they?  Why are they always out of the loop?

From your answers, you will be able to get a sense of where communication is breaking down or not happening at all.

Your answers may show you that one person always forgets to share information; the solution for that is easy and probably involves a large dose of goodwill and humor as the team retrains its errant member.  If someone keeps things a secret as a means of control, then you’ve got a stickier situation on your hands, but at least you’ve acknowledged it and can work as a team to address the problem.

Your answers may demonstrate that one person has an abrasive personality and people consequently avoid having to deal with him or her.  If the person is also not doing a good job, that points up a leadership or personnel issue that must be dealt with.  If the person is valuable to the organization, that’s another sticky situation, but the team needs to tackle it.

Maybe most communication in your organization takes the form of email or paper memos, and a few key people never turn on their computers or check their in-boxes.  If they are staff members, they can be reminded that doing so is part of their job.  If they are board members, there will have to be some meeting of minds between them and the staff to figure out a system that works.  (Or other board members will have to talk to them and gently remind them what their job entails.)

If none of the above scenarios, or similar ones that you can spin yourself, sounds familiar, then you may be in the midst of an organization where no one has yet realized how important information sharing is.  In that case, it becomes the responsibility of the organizational leadership — your job — to lead the way to improvement.

In the final article in this series, we’ll explore ways you can become a catalyst for communication.

About the Contributor: Jane Tennen

Jane is  Executive Director of Development at John Jay College, a college of The City University of New York. She provides strategic vision and leadership for all fundraising, alumni relations, and stewardship activities during an exciting time of growth and expansion for the College. Reporting to the Vice President of Marketing and Development, she works closely with the President and other senior leaders of the College.

Jane became a nonprofit professional in 1974 and a consultant in 1986.  In prior positions, she played a lead creative role in more than 200 successful fundraising publications, proposals, and speeches in NYU’s then pacesetting $100 million campaign. She secured the first arts grant at The Door, a leading New York City youth agency and the first corporate grant for an important postmodern dance company, whose board I also helped reorganize and expand.

In her native Philadelphia in the 1970s, Jane helped establish two experimental video series, was involved in two international film festivals, a 90-seat cinemathèque, and an independent movie theatre, and facilitated the first grant for a gallery-performance space.

Jane have served on the Montclair State University School of the Arts Advisory Committee and many other boards, panels, and committees, and have been listed in Who’s Who in America.  She was writing director for the second New York City Kids’ Culture Catalog, described by New York Magazine as “terse and beguiling,” and contributes to the CharityChannel Press online journals Nonprofit Boards and Governance Review and Nonprofit Consulting Review.

Jane received her MFA in nonprofit theatre administration from Yale Drama School and her BA in classical studies from the University of Pennsylvania.

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