Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen perform at a concert for President Obama in 2009. H. Darr Beiser, USA Today
“It is the hard days, the times that challenge you to your very core, that determine who you are.” ─ Sheryl Sandberg, COO Facebook
‘Keep Your Eyes on the Prize’ is a song made famous by Pete Seeger on his 1963 album, ‘We Shall Overcome.’ It was played to keep spirits up during the 1960’s civil rights movement. Bruce Springsteen has also performed it, as have other artists. If you’re looking for inspiration, I encourage you to check out the YouTube links above.
Today it seems the phrase ‘Keep your eyes on the prize’ no longer conjures up thoughts of civil rights marches and citizen activism. Instead it has become part of the everyday lexicon of motivational speeches, whether business or personal.
Over the past few months, numerous board discussions have reminded me of this slogan, as their organizations worked to stay afloat and even to ‘build back better.’
Where a few months ago the board may have felt a strong sense of momentum for structural or operational change, now it might feel like those kinds of initiatives have stalled. If you are a board director taking the long view, there are a couple of things to consider.
“The most important thing is to remember the most important thing.” ─ Rick Hanson Ph.D., neuroscientist
Maybe you’re familiar with the following words from Dr. Hanson in 2012. For me, they seem to resonate today in terms of keeping your eyes on the prize.
“The most important things often get pushed to the sidelines. Urgent crowds out important. Modern life is full of distracting clamour, from text messages and emails to window displays in the mall. Other people tug at you with their priorities - which may not be your own. And it can feel scary to admit what really matters to you, tell others, and go after it for real: the fearful voices whisper in the back of the mind: What if you fail?”
Now, think about Dr. Hanson’s comments from your perspective as a board director. Have important matters been crowded out? Have you spent valuable board time responding to other people’s priorities? Have projects been discussed, but set aside because of the urgency of the past few months?
In other words, has your board taken its eyes off the prize?
What prize? I would say, when it comes to board work, the prize is the organization’s core purpose.
Of all the initiatives that were under consideration when life was ‘normal’, is now the time to bring back the most important ones and move them back to the top of the board agenda?
I’ll leave that question for you to ponder.
On a more personal note, I’m also reminded of ‘Keep your eyes on the prize’ as we get closer to launching the DirectorPrep membership site for our director community. For me and my two DirectorPrep partners, at times our prize seems as straightforward as just getting the darn thing launched. Looking a little deeper, it’s about the motivation that comes from believing we have a role to play in helping new and aspiring directors prepare for board meetings, so they can contribute, collaborate, and influence decisions at the board table. We want to help guide them along the path to becoming a savvy director.
It’s been a challenging journey, COVID aside. We’ve been incubating this online service for the better part of five years. It got started with a client of mine who one day asked me, “Wouldn’t it be great if you could look at your phone and get some questions for the board meeting?” For some reason, this idea seized my imagination, and I got to musing about it during our next vacation ─ a wine-tasting trip to Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
And so, in July 2015, while sitting on a deck in McMinnville with morning coffee in hand, the working draft for a definite major purpose for DirectorPrep was born. We set out to build ‘an indispensable hub for board director preparation and connection.’ In our mind’s eye, we saw an affordable online tool that would facilitate a quick and easy way to search for board-ready director questions. As it turns out, the project has turned out to be a little more than that.
More than once, I’m sure, all three co-founders have questioned why we kept at it through many obstacles. Finding enough time to get the prototype built cut into everyone’s family time, personal leisure, hobbies, and other pursuits. Fortunately we had regular work that paid the bills, but that also meant less time available for our DirectorPrep project.
A couple of years later, all our bootstrapping effort was a sunk cost. We went to California (remember those days when you could just pick up and travel?) for live training on building an online platform in the thought leader space. Then we invested in online courses to learn how to do just that ─ build and launch online courses! And we conducted research with directors of all experience levels, gathering input on what our service might look like.
Two years ago, we felt just about ready to introduce the DirectorPrep Questions Database. But then we encountered a new challenge ─ an unforeseen layer of technical vulnerability. A key third-party component of the platform we were using was updated, somehow creating havoc and dysfunction within our product. In retrospect, it’s a good thing we discovered the problem before launch. But, at the time, it felt like a crushing blow.
It meant we were headed back to the drawing board. There was no way we could go to market with an unstable piece of code that we couldn’t control.
Keeping our eyes on the prize … we chose to pivot. That’s when we decided to develop the questions tool as an app.
DirectorPrep co-founder and chief architect, Dave Jaworski, took it upon himself to learn the latest computer language to write proprietary code for the DirectorPrep Questions App (DQA). It’s fast, it’s efficient and it’s ours – no unpredictable plug-ins allowed. Recently we did some consumer testing to good reviews, and now we’re working on a suggested enhancement for our first release.
Here’s a short clip on how it works:
“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is to try just one more time.” ─ Thomas Edison
We are grateful for your support of The Savvy Director blog. Believe it or not, (I find it hard to believe,) this is the 50th consecutive weekly edition. We made a commitment from the start to publish a fresh blog every Sunday morning, and that’s what we’ve done. The only exceptions were the weeks of Christmas, New Year’s and Easter – we sent you an email greeting on those occasions instead of a blog.
To thank you for your support of The Savvy Director blog (some of you have been subscribers for all 50 weeks), we’d like to provide you with five free DirectorPrep guides. The following downloads will be available in your personal DirectorPrep library:
To activate your library page, we’ll send you an email with a link and a password. In the meantime, here’s a short video that we’ll be posting on social media in the weeks ahead.
For those of you who are not yet regular subscribers, we'd love to have you join us. You will receive the same DirectorPrep library as well as the latest Savvy Director newsletter.
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Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of DirectorPrep.com – an online hub with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help prepare for your next board meeting.
Share Your Insight: What techniques have you seen a board use effectively to keep its eyes on the prize?