Boards as Teams

by Tim Lannan, M.S.O.D.

Part I - Nonprofit Boards Are Teams

What is a board if not a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable? That is the classic definition of teams proposed by Katzenbach and Smith in Wisdom of Teams. Similarly, William Dyer’s characteristics of effective teams could just as easily describe effective nonprofit boards:

  • Goals and values are clear.
  • People understand their roles and how they contribute to the whole.
  • Climate of trust and support among members.
  • Communications are open.
  • People participate in making free, informed decisions.
  • Everyone implements decisions with commitment.
  • Leaders are supportive of others and have high personal performance standards.
  • Differences are recognized and handled.
  • Team structure and procedures are consistent with the task, goals, and people involved.

I have found that integrating team theory and team development into my work with nonprofit boards increases board effectiveness and maximizes the value of board members' diverse perspectives, backgrounds, and skills. It is worth noting, however, that some of the assumptions that support the notion of applying team theory to nonprofit boards may challenge a few myths about nonprofit boards.

  • Process is as important as content. Much of what is written about nonprofit board performance deals with what a board does rather than how it does it – board functions vs. board functioning. Consequently, most board development efforts are prescriptive, telling the board what it should do or trying to make the board fit into a predetermined model. Team theory tells us that process – how the work gets done – is as important as content and task – what the work is. As the NACD (National Association of Corporate Directors) Blue Ribbon Commission on Director Professionalism concluded, “each board should consider and decide for itself what it should do and how it should do it…. Fixed, rigid rules of Board governance are not therefore in order…. Directors [should] collectively make their own rules for the governance of their respective Boards … after thoughtful and rigorous deliberation.”

  • The Board is responsible for itself. The board as a whole must be fully accountable for its own performance. Effective board functioning is not the responsibility of the CEO or the board chair or even a board development committee. While others can help the board become what it wants to be, the board must answer for its results – or lack thereof.

  • The Board has specific deliverables. A nonprofit board does not exist simply for the greater good and glory of the organization or its board members: it should be able to demonstrate added value that is at least commensurate with the resources it consumes. Each board needs to articulate a clear purpose for itself – distinct from but necessarily related to that of the organization and distinct from that of staff – and specific, simple, measurable performance goals against which board performance can be evaluated. A board’s specific performance goals will depend on its organization’s mission and strategic priorities; where the organization is in its life cycle; the size of the organization; availability of other resources, including staff, volunteers, and funding; key stakeholders and the community served by the organization; and numerous other variables. It might be worth noting that a list of activities (e.g., “fundraising” or “hiring and firing the CEO”) are not performance goals.

  • Diversity and conflict should be embraced. Diversity on the board means bringing different backgrounds, perspectives, behaviors, and thinking styles into the room, which inevitably creates conflict – something that is anathema to many boards, especially those that defer to position, tenure, or expertise. But, if boards value diversity and truly believe that all board members are essential to the overall success of the board and the organization, they need to find ways to deal with conflict constructively and openly. This requires surfacing and exploring the different experiences and points of view in the room, appreciating differences, and getting beyond individual goals to make informed and lasting decisions.

  • Trust is an essential component of effective boards. People need to trust each other if they are to work together productively and effectively on a board. This does not mean that board members need to like each other. But they do need to trust and respect each other enough to have open and candid conversations about the issues that really matter. They need to know that they will be listened to and that their opinions will be valued even if others disagree. They need to be able to listen to and understand other’s opinions without trying to convince them that they are wrong. They need to trust that the board team will make decisions that are right for the board and the organization, even if they themselves might make a different decision. Trust creates a climate that allows all members’ energies and resources to be used well in advancing the board’s purpose and performance goals.

  • Team building is not an end unto itself. Performance – doing the work well – is the primary objective; the board team is the means, not the end. Consequently, the focus of board development efforts should be on the performance challenge, not on trying to become a team. The most powerful team building can occur when boards rethink an organization’s future and then redefine the board’s job in relation to that future. In a related vein, teams and teamwork are two different things. A team is not just any group that happens to be working together: its members work together to achieve the team’s purpose and hold each other fully and jointly accountable for the team’s results. Teamwork is more a state of mind or set of behaviors: teamwork can help teams succeed, but teamwork alone does not make a team.

Good governance is not an accident; it requires hard work. There is no one right way to be a board: every board must decide for itself how it is going to govern and assume responsibility for doing that effectively. Daring to Lead 2006 reported that only one in three executives view their board as an engaged leadership body. Team theory brings proven ways to effectively engage boards in the work of the organization. Becoming a team requires disciplined action to shape a common purpose, agree on performance goals, define a common approach to working together, develop high levels of complementary skills and perspectives, and hold the board collectively and mutually accountable for results.

The next two parts of this article will introduce tools for team development and how they can be used with nonprofit boards.

Part 2: Models of Team/Board Development

Models of team development are simply tools to help understand how teams – and, thus, boards – develop and grow. These models help explain board behavior and make it clear that creating a high-performing board takes work as well as time. Because teams like nonprofit boards are formed to achieve more than individual members can do on their own, models provide a way to understand what it will take for a group of strangers to become a team united around a shared purpose. A team development model provides a simple framework for discussing what might be going on in a board and what it will take to get it to the next level. While there are many team development models, I will outline two that I have found helpful in my work with nonprofit boards: Tuckman’s Stages of Team Development and the Drexler/Sibbet Team Performance Model. In discussing these models, I have use the word “board” instead of “team” to reinforce their applicability to nonprofit boards.

Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing

The simplest and most widely known model is attributed to Bruce Tuckman, who outlined four stages of team – or board – development: forming, storming, norming, and performing (he later added “adjourning” as a fifth stage). Tuckman would argue that all the stages are necessary and inevitable if the board is to mature and deliver results, and that boards will revert to earlier stages in certain circumstances (e.g., a change in leadership).

Forming is the orientation stage where members get acquainted with each other and the reasons they came together as a board. The focus is on clarifying the job of the board and boundaries of what is acceptable – in terms of behavior, tasks, and how the board will work. Members are usually positive and polite as they get to know each other and some may be uncertain or anxious because they don’t yet know what being a member of the board will involve. Individual roles and responsibilities are unclear and there is a high degree of dependence on the board chair (team leader) for guidance and direction. Thus, board chairs play a dominant role at this stage and typically assume a directive style of leadership.

Storming is where reality sets in as differences surface and individuals and ideas compete for attention. Disagreement about goals, expectations, roles, and responsibilities is openly expressed: some members question the goals of the board, or resist taking on tasks, or challenge formal authority. Decisions don’t come easily but in addressing the conflicts that surface at this stage, ways of working begin to be defined. Some boards never evolve past this stage, which, while necessary for the growth of the board, is unpleasant and even painful to board members who are conflict averse. During this stage board chairs still need to be directive and provide support, process, and structure to guide decision-making and behavior. But board chairs also need to assume a coaching style to guide the board through this transition phase to promote understanding of differences and build relationships among board members.

Norming brings agreement on roles, structures, rules, values, desired behavior, processes and procedures, tools, and even taboos, as well as a strong commitment to a shared purpose and goals. During this stage the board starts to develop its own identity and effectiveness increases. Members appreciate each others’ differences and are able to ask for help and provide constructive criticism. The potential danger of this stage is the loss of creativity if norming behaviors stifle healthy dissent or promote groupthink. During this stage, hierarchy and roles evolve as the role of the board chair is clarified and others take leadership in specific areas. Board chairs become more participative as board members take more responsibility; they can step back and help the board itself take responsibility for progress.

Performing is marked by a high degree of interdependence as members understand what is required of them and roles become more flexible. The board is clear about the what and why of its work and expectations of the board as a whole and its individual members; the energy of the group is challenged into effectively accomplishing clear and agreed-upon goals. The board functions as a unit and finds ways to get the job done smoothly and efficiently without inappropriate conflict. Disagreement is allowed – and even expected – as long as it is through means acceptable to the board. Board chairs have a very light touch during this stage, delegating much of the work and letting the board make most of the decisions.

Because the simplicity of this model makes it easy to explain, it can provide an easy way to discuss the challenges of board development. This model is especially useful in understanding issues related to leadership and power dynamics; it can help board chairs see that their role and approach needs to change and evolve as the board grows and evolves – or the board to see that it needs a chair with a different style as its needs change. Some of the strengths of this model, however, are also its limitations. For example, it assumes a linear progression through stages, which is not always the reality; and there is frequently an overlap between stages. In applying this to nonprofit boards, it is also important to consider the impact of changes in (or constancy of) membership that result from rotation, term limits, changing composition needs, and other variables.

Drexler/Sibbet Team Performance Model

The Drexler/Sibbet Team Performance model recognizes that teams – and boards – are highly interdependent, engage in complex relationships, and work toward common goals with imperfectly matched values and different ideas about how things ought to be done. It provides a way to track what is happening in a board, recognize symptoms of counterproductive activity, and identify what it will take to improve board performance. While I can’t do justice to the model or the theory that supports it in the space I have for this article, it is important to understand that this model is intended to be a guide to how boards perform vs. how they develop. The seven stages of this model represent sets of concerns that board members face at different times: these stages are not necessarily progressive, but resolution of issues in earlier stages does enable the concerns of later stages to be handled more successfully. Thus, the model itself is more like a mobile than a linear model – i.e., all elements need to be in balance for it to work effectively. Each of the seven stages has a key question that needs to be answered for that element to be balanced.

Orientation: WHY am I here? Members need to understand why they are part of the board: why the board exists – its purpose – and what is expected of them – what their contribution to the board will be and how the board will use their interests and talents. Board charters and job descriptions can help answer these questions, but members also need to believe that they will make a difference to the board and that the work of the board will make a difference for them.

Trust Building: WHO are you? Because board members need to depend on each other for success, trust is essential; the higher degree of interdependency, the more trust will be required. Trust comes from getting to know each other through the experience of working together – and sometimes having fun together. With confidence in self and each other, board members can be comfortable sharing their experiences and opinions and tell their own truth as well as deal with the conflict and differences that result from the openness of this exchange.

Goal Clarification: WHAT are we doing? The task for this stage is to clarify and agree upon what the board is responsible for accomplishing – specific objectives and deliverables that link with and advance the board’s purpose and long-term goals. Clear priorities and measurable objectives focus the board’s work and serve as milestones on the road to success.

Commitment: HOW will we do it? This stage involves making choices that commit the board and board members to a specific course of action – which necessarily precludes other possibilities. This stage also includes clarifying how the work gets divided up and coordinated; roles, responsibilities and authority (of individuals, committees, and the board); how resources, including time and money, will be allocated; and how board members will work together (e.g., decision-making, communications and information sharing, etc.).

Implementation: WHO does WHAT, WHEN, WHERE? The challenge of this stage is to translate the goal into specific tasks and a smooth process. By committing to a discipline that clarifies who will do what when, everyone should have the same expectations around what the work of the board is, how it will be done, and how she or he fits into the overall process. This also provides a way to ensure the process says on track and hold people accountable for their part.

High Performance: WOW! While not all boards need to achieve high performance in order to be successful, it is frequently desirable since boards require a great deal of interdependence among members. Typically, high performance happens either as a result of a crisis, in which case it is usually a short-term anomaly, or because the board has mastered the previous stages and is feeling the effects of chemistry, timing, and perhaps even luck. While it may not be quantifiable, boards intuitively know when they are in the high performance zone because members trust each other to do their part well and the board is nimble and exceeds its goals.

Renewal: Why continue? This stage re-asks the orientation question: Why are we here? The basic concerns are ensuring that the purpose of the board remains valid and that there is a fit between what individual members bring and want and what the board is doing. This stage might be triggered by a significant change, perhaps in the organization or in its external environment or in the composition of the board. This also provides an opportunity to celebrate successes and contributions to the board.

Used together, the Tuckman model and the Drexler/Sibbet model complement each other and can help nonprofit boards get to the next level. One can help the board understand where it is in its development as a team; the other can help the board understand what elements need to be addressed to achieve higher performance. Ultimately, the purpose of these conceptual models is to facilitate constructive dialogue among board members about where they are, where they want to be, and how to close the gap between the two.

The next part of this article will discuss how these models can be used as tools for improving board performance.

Part 3: Using Team Models to Improve Board Performance

Team development models provide great lenses through which to view what is happening with a board. Following are just a few examples of what you might see in nonprofit boards and how the Tuckman and Drexler/Sibbet models can be used to understand and address them.

Board members have different ideas about what the board is or should be. Because individual experiences with boards and nonprofit organization vary, people come to the board with different beliefs about what a board is or should be. Some subscribe to the 3 W’s or 3 T’s view, which focus primarily on what individual board members should contribute – whether that be “wealth, wisdom, and work” or “time, treasure, and talent.” Others are more familiar with corporate or strategic governance where the board focuses on setting policy and long-term priorities, which staff are responsible for implementing. And some are there simply to “support the CEO.” Different and unaligned expectations about what the board should be create frustration and tensions among board members, which get vented in complaints (usually in asides to other board members) such as “s/he is always meddling” or “s/he is not pulling her/his weight” or “s/he has no clue.”

Viewed through the lens of Tuckman’s Forming stage or Drexler/Sibbet’s Orientation stage, it becomes clear that that there is no commonly accepted purpose for the board and different board members have different beliefs about why they are there. While “best practices” suggest that all boards should have a written charter or job description that defines the purpose of the board and the contributions it will make to the organization in addition to a job description for board members that documents what is expected of them as individuals, many boards don’t have one let alone both of these documents – which typically means there is no shared understanding of the purpose of the board. Once in place, these documents can be used in board recruitment and orientation to ensure that all board members are clear about the job of the board as a whole and what they are expected to do as board members.

Inevitably, there comes a time when the job description needs to be revisited as part of what Drexler/Sibbet call the Renewal stage. This might be because the board has accomplished its original purpose. For example, a start-up all-volunteer organization whose original purpose was to create an organization to raise awareness of a specific issue or community need might have raised sufficient funding to hire staff to coordinate an outreach program. With this move to the next stage of the organization’s life-cycle, the board should revisit its purpose. If staff assumes day to day operations that the board had previously fulfilled, the board might assume more of a strategic and oversight role. But, without deliberately and thoughtfully revisiting purpose, it is likely that some founding board members will continue to believe that the board needs to be closely involved in managing day-to-day operations.

Important discussions happen in the hallway rather than the board room. When board members have frequent sidebar conversations or pigeonhole their friends in the hallway to share their actual opinions, they are probably not comfortable saying what they really think in front of the whole board. In the board room, these same members are either silent or cautious about what they say and might even withhold important information. The Drexler/Sibbet model suggests that this could be evidence of the lack of trust, in which case the board chair might try to create settings where board members can get to know each other better – either by working together on committee assignments or special projects or in social gatherings where they can learn more about each other as individuals.

It is also possible that this is evidence that the board has not established norms for handling difficult issues or resolving differences of opinion in ways that make board members comfortable enough to discuss them openly in the board room. Viewed through Tuckman’s model, one might see the need to establish rules and values related to conflict, decision-making, and desired behaviors. Drexler/Sibbet’s Commitment stage suggests similar solutions to clarify how board members should work together.

Chaos prevails; nothing moves forward. With some boards, everyone seems to have different opinions; decisions are made and then revisited or reversed; no one seems to be sure who is supposed to do what and so nothing happens – or everyone seems to be trying to do everything. In Tuckman’s model, this would be clear evidence that the board is deep into the Storming stage – which may ultimately get resolved by a move into the Norming stage but can be quite difficult to pass through. To help the board get through this stage, board chairs need to remain positive and keep their sense of humor. Board chairs should assume a coaching but firm style of leadership and try to help members voice their differences in a way that others can hear and appreciate them. Chairs might also introduce processes and systems that could eventually become norms adopted by the board.

The Drexler/Sibbet model might also suggest focusing on Goal Clarification to get agreement on measurable objectives and deliverables, and then look at Commitment to ensure agreement about a specific course of action, and then Implementation to determine exactly who will do what, when, and where. Ideally, how the work gets divided up and coordinated will be aligned with individual competencies and people will be put into roles that develop their abilities and improve results for the team. Clarity around what the work is and how it will be accomplished is essential to forward movement.

Commitment also includes ensuring agreement about how the board will create a context for informed and lasting decisions. There are various techniques for doing this, including the one proposed by Chait, Ryan, and Taylor in Governance as Leadership, which suggests that boards need to be deliberate and intentional about which of three governance modes – fiduciary, strategic, and generative – they use when. Regardless of which technique a board decides to adopt, the important thing is to be clear about how the board will operate so that all board members are participating in the same discussion and making decisions about the same things.

Efforts to diversify the board fail. Sometimes, the board sets a goal of diversifying board membership and recruits new members who help the board meet that goal, but then those members don’t last or they don’t participate as expected. Considering this through the lens of Tuckman’s model, one possibility might be that the board norms might preclude meaningful participation; consequently, new members find the culture of the board unwelcoming or unsupportive. Teams and boards need to adapt and evolve to meet the changing needs of the organization, the group, and its members. Sometimes, this requires going back into the Storming stage so that established norms can be revised to meet the changing needs of the board. If new members aren’t comfortable with the way the group functions and don’t feel that they can change it, they will move on to another board where their contributions will be valued.

Viewed through the Drexler/Sibbet model, this might also be an issue of Orientation: clarifying how what members bring individually contributes toward the board’s purpose and how being on the board will make a difference for board members. No one wants to be on the board simply because they fit a certain profile; all board members expect to contribute the talents and skills they bring to advancing the organization’s mission and making a difference.

It is also possible this could be an issue of Trust Building, especially where new members are brought into what otherwise feels like an “old boys club.” Trust involves some degree of risk and uncertainty on both sides, so it is important that all board members – new and old – get to know each other as individuals so that they can depend on each other and work together successfully.

Board does staff work – or no work. If a review of board minutes shows that the only decisions the board makes are approval of board minutes, routine reports, banking resolutions, election of new members, and the like, one might rightly ask what value the board is adding. If board committees are set up to parallel and oversee staff functions, one might also ask what the board does besides oversee staff – which in larger organizations should be the CEO’s responsibility. This gets to core questions of purpose in both the Tuckman and Drexler/Sibbet models, and also suggests that issues related to Norming, Goal Clarification, Commitment, and Implementation have not been adequately addressed.

Decisions by or dependence on a few board members. Whether it is the board chair who makes most of the major decisions by her/himself, or the major donor who also sits on the board, or the Finance Committee, the Tuckman model would suggest that this has become a norm that needs to be revisited. The unwritten rule has become that power and control are vested in one person or in a small subgroup; typically conflict or dissension is also not tolerated and other board members don’t feel especially valued. This can results in low interest and energy levels, which is demonstrated by poor attendance and board members who don’t take on any new assignments. The Drexler/Sibbet model would also suggest clarifying goals and work of the board as a whole as well as reviewing and perhaps redefining roles and responsibilities of board leadership and individual members.

Boards can and should be exciting places where board members are engaged and committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable. Boards that have these traits can provide the leadership nonprofits need to bring about change and make the world a better place.

Bell, J., Moyers, R., & Wolfred, T. Daring to Lead 2006: A National Study of Nonprofit Executive Leadership.
Chait, R.P., Ryan, W.P., & Taylor, B.E. Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards.
Drexler, A.B., Sibbet, D., & Forrester, R. The Team Performance Model.
Dyer, W.G. Team Building: Current Issues and New Alternatives.
Forrester, R. & Drexler, A.B. A model for team-based performance. Academy of Management Executive 13(3): 36-49
Katzenbach, J.R., & Smith, D.K. The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization.
National Association of Corporate Directors. Blue Ribbon Commission on Director Professionalism.
Palmer, J. For the Manager Who Must Build a Team.
Tuckman, B. Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin 63(6): 384-99. (Reprinted in Group Facilitation, Spring 2001)

Tim Lannan, M.S.O.D., is an organizational development consultant with more than 25 years’ experience in all aspects of not-for-profit management and governance. He focuses on helping nonprofit organizations discover and unleash their unique potential for positive change. For more information, go to

Originally published on in Nonprofit Boards and Governance Review™, a domestic and international trademark of CharityChannel LLC. Copyright (c) and Trademark (tm) CharityChannel LLC. All rights reserved. " Nonprofit Boards As Teams" Copyright © 2009 by Tim Lannan.

Part 1 - Nonprofit Boards Are Teams:
Part 2: Models of Team/Board Development:
Part 3: Using Team Models to Improve Board Performance: