A Rabbi, a Hispanic and a Siek Walked into a Board Room

I am old enough to remember being the only woman on a board in my twenties. The men used to ask, “What do women think of this.” It drove me nuts. Now that I am old enough to be on Medicare, I appreciate the opportunity to educate and realize the answer is, “What segment of the female population are you specifically referring to and when will you need the answer? I need to do review the research.”

I was at a Planned Giving Council meeting and an African-American man said that he was sick to death of people asking his opinion on the Black Lives Matter movement. I felt his frustration, but I also saw an opportunity.

People are curious. They ask annoying questions. My former brother-in-law was 6’7. He got two questions: 1. How tall are you? And  2. Do you play basketball? (I loved his answers: 1. How much do you weigh? and 2. I am barely coordinated enough to walk, much less play basketball.)

At some time or another, every one of us is the only one in the room in a specific demographic: the only Catholic, person in a wheelchair, gay man, Syrian woman etc.

We all get questions. Some are annoying and some are fun-loving. When working in another country, I was the only white person in a work group that spent a lot of time together. I adored them. One person always asked me if I was wearing sun screen before we went outside. I knew she was just fooling around, but I send her an article on skin cancer and Afro-Caribbeans. Now we all wear sun screen, although the truth is, I have a much greater chance of having bits of my face snipped off.  

Here is what I want you to think about: Assume that people will always be curious and that your job is to be an educator. To paraphrase the Bard, some of us are born to be educators, some achieve it and some have it thrust upon them. Consider it the ultimate compliment and assume the question is asked by someone who is truly interested and not insensitive.

When you have a question, consider starting a conversation with, “I hope this isn’t a rude question, but I am very curious.  Would you mind sharing your thoughts on…..” Be gracious if someone is aggravated.

What makes a great board is when people can respectfully ask the difficult and potentially politically insensitive questions and discuss them openly and honestly. The emphasis is on the “respectfully.” After all, a boardroom is NOT a presidential election!

Here is what happens when your board has a culture where you can ask questions that can be considered either insensitive or politically incorrect outside the boardroom:

  • You have a greater understanding of what your clients want
  • You question assumptions regarding what is a reasonable risk
  • You become a learning board
  • You will be uncomfortable at times, whether you are being asked or asking a difficult conversation
  • Your board will make better decisions.

How do you become a board where difficult questions can be asked? :

At the beginning of the year, when new board members begin or during a retreat, ask trustees to share a question in writing that they have always wanted to know, but never have. Have the board president or a facilitator share the questions and break down into groups.

Ask board members if they would be willing to share their experience with your cause. Graciously take no for an answer.

Thank people for sharing their stories and ask if you can ask additional questions in private. Again, graciously take no for an answer

Here are two examples:

I was on the board of the National Hemophilia Foundation many years ago. A major problem with hemophilia is joint pain. When you have pain, you take drugs. When you take a lot of drugs, you become addicted. I was able to ask several of the men on the board what their experience was. (Hemophilia almost exclusively affects men). They shared both their philosophies of dealing with pain and their journeys. I will be forever grateful for the frankness.

I was doing a board retreat for a classical music group. I asked why music of the past was so important. A mathematician, who was a dead ringer for the Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon, told a passionate and moving story about how he was sitting in a café in Vienna listening to a string quartet play Mozart when he saw the most exquisite woman he had ever seen. Despite his shyness, the music brought him to his feet. They have been married for 32 years.

Ask questions. Answer annoying and joyful and politically incorrect questions. You will be smarter and your board will be wiser.



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