Several years ago, an acquaintance stopped me in the grocery store. The Board of Directors of an organization to which we both belonged had decided not to renew the contract of the organization’s leader. In response, the community parted like the red sea. Some felt vindicated and were passionate in expressing their support of the decision. Others felt confused and defensive, and vocalized their shock and dismay. They wanted to know why the decision was made and, in the absence of detailed information or personal experience that explained the decision, these people became angry and strongly disagreed.

“What do you think about it?” she asked me as we stood between the fruit section and the deli. Her posture said more than her words. She wanted to know on which side of the fence I stood. If I answered one way, she might share more of her own thoughts. If I was in disagreement with her, I suspected we would change the topic.

I weighed my words carefully. “I personally have had only positive interactions with [name of the leader]. I appreciate the contributions [name] has made to our community. However, I do not currently serve on the Board of Directors and I do not go to Board meetings. By choosing not to be involved at that level of leadership, I am also choosing to trust the people who do serve on the Board to make decisions that are in the best interest of our community. I serve on the Board of another organization. I know that not all personnel issues can be discussed with the greater community and that there may be pieces to all of this that we don’t know. I trust our Board of Directors to take care of our community, and I trust that they needed to make this decision, as hard as it may be for some people in our community to accept.”

Much of the work I do as a professional and as a volunteer occurs within relational communities. Because of the size and nature of the communities, the people I interact with often choose to wear more than one hat. In a school setting, the chair of the board may also be a parent of a student and married to the co-chair of the diversity committee. In congregations, people on the board are also congregants. Some are also parents of children in the religious school program. Many of these communities were formed by a few families getting together to create something new. In the infancy of the organization, the community operated much like a large and growing family. Like members of a family, people in small communities fill different roles, assume a variety of responsibilities, and work hard to get along with each other despite personality differences and diverse points of view.

Over time, these organizations expand to the point at which there is a board of trustees or directors in place. They hire leaders, administrative teams, and support staff. Much of the work in the community is still done by volunteers who work with the hired professionals within the organization. If professional development is provided, it is often focused on developing the skills of those in leadership positions. However, for an organization to grow in a healthy way, everyone in the community needs leadership training and development to understand the shift the community is experiencing. The entire community needs to clearly understand the roles and responsibilities of those serving in leadership positions as well as how to responsibly engage with the leadership structure.  The level of education and engagement of the entire community sets the pace of transformation and determines the degree of success the organization experiences in reaching its goals. 

In next week’s blog, we will explore several specific points of training and education that make a critical difference in keeping communities connected, healthy, and strong throughout the expansion and evolution of an organization.

Sarah M. Kipp is a speaker, coach, and consultant who provides leadership and diversity training to schools, businesses, and congregations. Sarah lives near Boston, Massachusetts with her family.