A conversation with Steven Scott Bradley and Lauren Hansen-Flaschen.
A committed community leader, Steven Scott Bradley sits on numerous boards of area organizations. He serves as the chairman of the board of the African American Chamber of Commerce of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware and of the First African Baptist Church of Darby Township-Trustee Ministry. Mr. Bradley is also a board member of Philadelphia Foundation and WHYY Public Radio/TV and serves as an advisory member of the Urban Affairs Coalition Strategic Planning Committee. Lauren Hansen-Flaschen leads the strategic planning practice at Schultz & Williams and brings years of experience in guiding diverse organizations through the planning process.
What should role of board members be in strategic planning? What are the do’s and don’ts.
LHF: First is setting expectations for board members’ participation in the process and their time commitment. Board members serving on the planning steering committee need to prioritize the importance of attending the committee meetings and understand that they are there to provide their perspective and expertise, not to be an audience. They are tapped to help shape the strategic direction for the organization and need to be active in doing so.
SSB: When board members fully engage, the outcome of the work is much more rewarding. When they do the homework and come focused and prepared, they’ll be happy with what was accomplished. When it’s done, board members are motivated to champion the plan to others.
The planning process is also a great opportunity for board members to learn more about the on-the-ground work of the organization.
That said, the board needs to stay in their lane, stay at the strategic level. The board has to respect the people on the front line. It takes discipline. The board member may want to fix issues immediately, thinking they have all the answers. But they need to listen and think about different sides of the issue.
How can you make sure that strategic planning is an engaging, meaningful process?
SSB: It really helps to make the process fun. I’m a fan of ice-breakers. You get to know other board members and staff leaders on a more personal level. You can make new connections. It takes the seriousness and routine out of the process.
LHF: One of my favorite things about facilitating strategic planning sessions is witnessing those connections being made. The process lends itself to relationship-building within the board and leadership team.
Our approach is to make the process as engaging and thought-provoking as possible. We use ice-breakers and break-out groups to stimulate lively discussions. Going virtual, those activities have taken a new form, but we are having great success in making the meetings engaging and active. Being in the same physical space is ideal, but there are some interesting perks with a virtual format. For example, people are in their own spaces and may feel more comfortable.
SSB: Agree. Although with virtual, the meeting refreshments are out!
I also find it inspiring in a strategic planning session when you get to hear from a person who has directly benefitted from the organization’s work. It shows you that you are helping to make an important impact. It gives you a testimony which is also helpful when you are doing fundraising for the organization.
How can boards best approach becoming more diverse?
SSB: It’s critical that a board is not bringing homogenous viewpoints to their work, and that includes the work of planning.
Diversity is essential—all forms of diversity. We all have our own biases, whether based on differences in education, zip-code, race or culture. We need to leave all of that at the front door. The board’s role in strategic planning is about fostering an environment in which the organization can have a growth experience. Diversity plays a huge part in that.
I’m a big proponent of mentoring and coaching. That’s how it starts. That’s how you bring along the future leaders who are going to be ready to join boards and serve. And when you bring people in, you welcome them in.
LHF: Those are very helpful points. Addressing diversity is a key issue during the strategic planning process. It can be difficult for some individuals to openly discuss, so fostering a supportive dialogue and raising the issue from different angles helps. We’re seeing that becoming a more diverse organization, across the board, staff, and those served, becomes a priority goal for the strategic plan. The sustained hard work begins in implementation. We recommend that clients bring on experts to guide them through it.
Should organizations conduct strategic planning in the middle of a crisis?
LHF: For many organizations, this is a vital time to be engaged in strategic planning. When you are facing economic uncertainty, political uncertainty, social unrest, and a pandemic, it’s understandable to want to only focus on the present moment. That strategy can be short-sighted, resulting in exhaustion from having to react suddenly with no built-in support or plan. It can also result in missed strategic opportunities to rebuild and become stronger.
SSB: You are exactly right. In the face of instability, you plan. You look ahead to avoid surprises, and you build in the possible points where you may need to pivot.
I’m part of two groups going through planning right now. Everybody wants to look at how to be nimble. This makes the leadership team comfortable with the fact that they can be prepared and have well thought-out plans. The boards have responded very warmly to these conversations.
LHF: Managing all of this change is overwhelming. Making sure everyone is on the same page with the direction forward is another key reason to engage in strategic planning during these junctures. Unity grows across board and staff members as a result of the planning process. This isn’t to say that it’s easy to achieve! It takes dedication to see the process through and have an open mind to consider new ideas that may have been dismissed in the past.
SSB: We can feel vulnerable when having challenging conversations during strategic planning; you may feel exposed when examining the organization holistically. But often, people will respect you more when you show some vulnerability, and it makes them feel open to being vulnerable as well. What you stand to gain from being honest, both personally and as an organization, is huge.
In this time of seemingly perpetual uncertainly, strategic planning is an opportunity to inject some level of normalcy and structure into an organization. Committing to planning now is a way to move from reaction to action. That means it is also a chance to build new strengths of lasting value, and to emerge from this crisis as a more agile and adaptive organization.