Archive - March 2015

Sweet Briar College #BoardFail
Younger Women and Matterness

Sweet Briar College #BoardFail

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 10.47.28 AMSweet Briar College, a 114 year-old women’s college in rural Virginia, announced its closing due to financial difficulties. According to its website, the board voted to close the college on February 28th — and announced it to the world via press release on March 3rd, before telling faculty, students and alumnae.

The Sweet Briar board did everything they thought they were supposed to do. They examined the problem, ran through scenarios like merging with other colleges or becoming co-ed and came to the conclusion that the only pathway for them was to close the college. And that’s the problem. Their idea of what they are supposed to do is outdated and an abuse of Matterness by purposefully disempowering their key constituents as smart, generous, creative people capable of helping to solve problems.

This board, like so many other nonprofit boards, thought their job was to try to solve every problem in secret behind closed doors. They had been wrestling with serious financial difficulties for years without having open and honest conversations with students, faculty, parents and alumnae about the problems and asking for help. I don’t mean asking for money, I mean asking for help a community-wide strategy to either close or remain open. Instead, the board went through a series of options behind closed doors and announced their decision to close. Of course, there has been a huge backlash from people are who passionate supporters of the college and were taken by surprise by the sudden-feeling decision of the board.

One person interviews in the Times article said, “I understand that liberal arts colleges are struggling,” she said. Still, she said, the board “just threw in the towel.” This is the heart of the problem. No one believes that the Sweet Briar took this decision lightly, however, since no one on the outside was privy to the discussions or decision-making process of the board, the board now faces a tidal wave of anger, disbelief and protest. (Here is the inevitable Save Sweet Briar site.)

Why do boards continue to assume that it is their job to work in secret? Their job, they believe, is to review financial statements, make donations and ask others to do the same, and for gosh sakes, keep things quiet! This expectation is reinforced by the clubby feel of boards- friends of friends are invited to be board members and the last thing most people want to do in such a collegial atmosphere is make waves. Because board members come to their jobs believing that it is expecting, and prudent and smart, to work alone behind closed doors. This is a leadership choice not a necessity for boards; and a bad, outdated choice.

Every time a scandal erupts at a nonprofit organization, look at the board and how it operates. It is likely you will find an opaque culture of secretiveness. The scandal at Marlborough High School in Los Angeles, an elite prep school, is in crisis now because the board chair didn’t believe he needed to share an accusation of pedophilia with the larger board. And I won’t even begin to talk about the cheating culture of sports in higher education!

If nonprofit boards cannot bring themselves to open up their procedures and decision-making, then new rules are necessary to help them begin the process. I propose that nonprofit boards be required to post online:

  • Real-time financials online. The same P&L statements and balance sheets shared with the board should also be posted online with the agenda for board meetings.
  • Real-time video streaming of board meetings.
  • Board minutes

This is just a start. All board rooms, but at least and in particular nonprofit board rooms, need to throw their windows and doors open. If they think that transparency will make their life harder, they should consider how much harder their life will be when their secretiveness leads to a crisis down the road.


Younger Women and Matterness

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 1.59.01 PMSomeone recently asked me who I would most like to influence with Matterness. My immediate answer was younger women because they have can craft careers that are better aligned with their values without having to unlearn the lessons from working within fortress that are inherently fear-based and reward ungenerous behavior where the goal is to matter more oneself than to make others matter more.

So, these smart, prepared, professional women are walking into environments that are tilted towards the traditional manly values of competitiveness, always-on and me-firstness that continue to pervade American companies – even if they don’t work, aren’t profitable and make everyone feel terrible. What to do? Take More women than men are graduating with college and advanced degrees; and yet they continue to enter manly cultures where men continue to get paid more and getting ahead faster. And it feels awful. Here is how one friend put it last week:

After our executive presence training yesterday with a client services organization in the financial industry, a half-dozen women came up to us to talk about navigating the strength + warmth balance in a professional context as women facing the double standard of being penalized for showing their strength/competence. All were under 35, and highly educated, polished, and accomplished. …..women told us about the shit they deal with even with younger male colleagues.

We’ve all met that women, the amazing one who has been at the company for 25 years, who shows up more prepared than anyone else every day and knows how to navigate the bureaucracy, hierarchy and sexism of a large company while keeping her humanity intact. She is my hero.  I certainly couldn’t do it and most women can’t and either level off at a middle management spot and stay there, opt out entirely, or opt half way in and get paid a lot less than they’re worth. But we all need to start somewhere, and that somewhere is generally in fortress that treats everyone inside and out as a potential enemy.

Should you adopt the practices of the place and learn to be work in ways that are unnatural, exhausting and feel terrible? Or should you be your best self, be generous and kind, make other people matter more, regardless of the environmental norms?

So, now I’m asked to give advice to 24 year-old Sammy, two years out of Wesleyan, a world history and women’s studies major. Sammy took a year to travel (lucky her!) did some volunteer work and then buckled down to search for her first real job the one that will pay her one-third of the rent for the walk up in Astoria her mother won’t visit. After thirteen interviews she finally lands her first job, the crappy one, with lots of photocopying and note taking at meetings and even coffee runs.

Here is what I have would advise Sammy(s):

1. The first thing to figure out is what’s the culture and what’s the people. Sometimes it’s awfully hard to pull them apart, but more often, especially in a large place, you can distinguish good people from the bad cultures.

2. See if there is something to learn here. Can you figure out why good people who came to do good work, are behaving badly? What is it about the systems and culture, the incentives and rewards that are forcing people to be short-sighted and selfish?

3. Write it all down because it will give your brain something constructive to do and be a reminder later on of the kind of place you never, ever want to work in again.

4. Hold onto your humanity! Even in the worst cultures, there are opportunities to treat other people well. To thank them by email after a meeting. To give credit to other people (and no, learning how to grab and hold onto credit is not a good long-term career strategy.) To ask for advice and actually have the humility to use it.

5.. In the end, it may be that the best choice is to look for another job quickly. But one thing to remember is that wherever you are going for your next job, the first thing to ask about is about the organizational culture. Make sure that Matterness is built into the DNA of the new place.




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