John Sommerville – Board Governance Hiring Firing and Succession Planning

“The Chair and the CEO need to be able to find a balance between the accountability that the Chair provides and the nurture, support, and encouragement that the CEO needs.”  -John Sommerville

[00:00:00] John Sommerville: I was talking to somebody recently who was saying that you should never surround yourself with people who are just yes people.

And I said to him, you don’t want to surround yourself with people who are no people either. What we need is people who really love us and care for us and will do both. They will tell us and give us positive affirmation when we need it, and they will tell us the truth when we need to hear it, even if it’s uncomfortable.


[00:00:27] Tommy Thomas: Today, we’re continuing the conversation we began last week with John Somerville. John is the Vice President for Finance and Operations and the Chief Financial Officer at The University of Northwestern St. Paul. John has served as the Board Chair at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and currently serves on the Board of Trustees of Christianity Today. Some things you probably won’t learn about John from the internet include he’s an avid reader, reading on average 50 plus books a year. He’s an avid runner. He’s completed six marathons, including the 2019 Boston Marathon, and more than 20 half marathons. And he’s the author of Making Room for Christmas, a Collection of 10 Original Christmas stories. John has served in senior leadership with four different organizations and has done a lot of hiring. On the flip side, he has had to release people along the way. I’m always curious about any magic bullets that leaders might have around successful hiring and necessary firing. Let’s pick up the conversation there.

[00:01:39] Tommy Thomas: Have you got a favorite or a go-to interview question?

[00:01:43] John Sommerville: I don’t have a question. I have a category of questions.

I like to ask behavioral questions. In other words, what did you do? I like to hear what people have done. Now, I don’t actually ask many questions like, tell me about yourself, what do you like or what are your qualities. Because I think people can develop answers to those that are not grounded in what they actually are. They’re aspirational. They may say, I’m innovative or I’m a strong leader. I like to ask questions about things they’ve done and hear through that what I think they may do again in the future.

[00:02:20] Tommy Thomas: You know I found in my business, it’s easier said than done to get a hiring committee to do that.

One of my favorite ways of going at that is I tell them to circle the action verbs on somebody’s resume and then peel back the layers of the onion. What did that look like? But I never cease to be amazed that people don’t want to do that. It’s interesting that you develop that early in your career.

[00:02:47] John Sommerville: Tommy, one of the things that I’ve appreciated about you and your organization is these motivated abilities, the kinds of surveys that you do. I think that’s really wise because measuring qualities, whether it’s introversion and extroversion, whether it’s, whatever the test you have, if it just measures things that qualities about a person, you’re still not getting at what are they going to do if I give them a job?

[00:03:14] Tommy Thomas: So, you’ve given somebody a job, and for some reason, it didn’t work out. What goes into your decision to terminate somebody and maybe what have you found to be the best way to do it?

Hire slow, Fire fast!

[00:03:26] John Sommerville: I think you hire slow, fire fast. I have to confess that I have found performance improvement plans virtually worthless.

In other words, we do them because sometimes maybe we believe we need to do them legally, or in some other way we need to be fair. Maybe we’ve delayed too long in giving feedback we should have given earlier. I think if I’ve made any mistake in leadership and managing people over time, it’s sometimes I’m too patient.

I sometimes assume that this person’s going to catch hold, but once we determine as leaders that someone is the wrong fit or doesn’t have the abilities I think we need to call it quits. The other thing that I try to discern is their willingness and ability. What is it that is getting in the way?

And if it’s ability or skills, I’m more willing to be patient and let the person try to give the person the coaching they need. I once worked with someone who was struggling with our boss. And he and I were runners, and we were on a run together and he was complaining to me about our mutual boss and why he didn’t get along.

And halfway through the run, I said to him, you know what? I said the issue here isn’t your ability to do what he wants you to do. It’s your willingness. You don’t want to do this. You don’t like the direction he wants to take your role in the organization. And by the end of the run, he said, you’re right.

And he began to make a transition out of the organization. Discerning those things is really important.

[00:05:00] Tommy Thomas: Let’s go back to hiring for a minute. In this litigious world that we live in, what credence or stock do you place in reference checking?

[00:05:10] John Sommerville: Some, but people choose who they give you.

I try to ask questions that I think can get beyond the surface. In other words, I try actually not to ask as many open-ended questions as you might imagine. And I try to ask questions that get at, have they had conflict with someone? How did they resolve it? Have you watched them fail?

And what did you learn from them in that instance? I try to ask questions that are as behavioral as possible and I may ask what are their greatest accomplishments, but also what things didn’t they get done for you or what do you think they need to improve on?

And sometimes they can’t answer because they don’t really know. The other thing that I do is if I know anybody who’s in any way connected to them. If it’s not on the resume, it’s not a ref on their reference. I may call them anyway.  I may say hey I’m talking to so and I think you know them.

I noticed on LinkedIn you’re connected to them. Can you tell me anything about them? I’ll go beyond the list of references to find out what I can about people.

[00:06:18] Tommy Thomas: Where were you in your career when you felt like you were comfortable in your leadership skin, when you were comfortable that you were a leader?

[00:06:28] John Sommerville: I think that I would say that in some ways, I don’t know that we should ever get too comfortable. I think I have learned over the years things that I do well and things that I don’t do well, and that’s become clear over time.

And so I would say that I got more comfortable maybe particularly early in the years that I was leading the church that we planted. And I would say during my time at General Mills, I was around a lot of great leaders, and I was young. And so, I probably felt more unsettled, or I was still learning and feeling and learning what I do well.

But I’ve always found that every year I have a new insight, a different way of understanding what it is I do best. Try to do those things as much as I can and things I don’t do as well. Try to either work to remediate or try to find somebody else who can complement me in that area.


[00:07:22] Tommy Thomas: I’d like to get you to respond to a few quotes and then I want to go over into board work because board work is at the crux of the nonprofit sector.

So, here’s a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King. The ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of convenience, but where they stand in moments of challenge, moments of great crisis and controversy.

I think that it is easy to lead when things are going well and much more difficult when things are not going well, and I think that we need to learn to be able to lead when we have less than full information, when things are murky.

[00:07:47] John Sommerville: I think that it is easy to lead when things are going well and much more difficult when things are not going well, and I think that we need to learn to be able to lead when we have less than full information, when things are murky and sometimes that means pausing and waiting, not making a decision impulsively, and sometimes it means, like I mentioned with the elevator and our president, our division president, you just need to do something.

So sometimes leaders have to give direction. You mentioned authenticity earlier. There are times when being too authentic can be unsettling for people. I felt like that at the beginning of COVID. And yet I knew I needed to lead with clarity and direction on what we were going to do as a church.

And I’m sure many leaders felt unsettled. The future was not certain. So sometimes it’s beginning to move in a direction and then improvise as you go.

[00:08:44] Tommy Thomas: Here’s one from C. S. Lewis. Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains.  It’s his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

[00:09:02] John Sommerville: One of the things that I’ve become more grateful for, and this will sound like an oxymoron, but I’ve become grateful for times of hurt and pain in the sense that they lead us toward growth. And also times when I feel inadequate. One of the things I told my wife a couple of years ago was that I’d gone through a season where I felt I had to live in daily dependence just because of what was going on around me.

And I left that season and moved into a time where things felt a lot better. And I told her the one thing I did miss from that difficult time was that sense of dependence, daily dependence I had upon God. And I think that pain focuses us on things that we might need to change. Difficulty drives us to depend upon God.

And I think whenever we begin to feel like we’re adequate we’re putting ourselves in a dangerous place because we’re beginning to reassert our own control on living outside of the dependence that we need to have upon God.

[00:10:09] Tommy Thomas: Here’s one from Rob Hoskins.  He’s the CEO of One Hope.  Surround yourself with people who know you better than you know yourself and will tell you the truth out of love. This is how we grow.

I was talking to somebody recently who was saying that you should never surround yourself with people who are just yes people.  And I said to him, you don’t want to surround yourself with people who are no people either. What we need is, and some of it has to do with people who really love us and care for us and will do both.

[00:10:24] John Sommerville: I was talking to somebody recently who was saying that you should never surround yourself with people who are just yes people.

And I said to him, you don’t want to surround yourself with people who are no people either. What we need is, and some of it has to do with people who really love us and care for us and will do both. They will tell us and give us positive affirmation when we need it, and they will tell us the truth when we need to hear it, even if it’s uncomfortable.

And we all need people who have permission, and we give permission to speak that way into our lives. We will not grow. We will not have the perspective we need to have if we don’t have people like that in our lives. And sometimes our spouses play that role, sometimes another leader, sometimes a friend.

And I’ve had that and try to maintain that in my life all the time. Somebody just that I work with, a peer here, about three weeks ago said, by the way, John, and he then listed something he had observed, and he said, I think you need to do less of that. Absolutely right. And really helpful.

[00:11:28] Tommy Thomas: Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they’ll surprise you with their ingenuity. General George Patton.

[00:11:38] John Sommerville: It’s interesting that would come from Patton. My perception of him was he was a pretty directive leader. But I do think that what we need to tell people is what’s the outcome we’re looking for.

There are a lot of different ways to accomplish things. And most of the time if we prescribe it, we may find that we’re either thwarting an innovation that we might not have thought of, or we’re asking somebody to do something and be a clone. So be very clear about the deliverable, and the outcome that you’re looking for, and then let the process unfold.

Now, the exception to that is somebody who’s brand new. Sometimes what you need to do is do it with them. Watch them do it and then release them to do it. And that may take a little time.

[00:12:19] Tommy Thomas: Sticking with our military theme and preparing for battle, I’ve always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.  President Dwight David Eisenhower.

[00:12:31] John Sommerville: Once I had heard someone say that what we ought to develop is not plans, but fuzzy plans. And I think that the principle is what Eisenhower is getting at. And that is that what a plan provides is a general direction, but if you prescribe it as a step one, two, three, like a YouTube video telling you how to replace a lock or something what you’ll find is that if you run into a challenge, something’s broken or something’s not right, then you’re stuck.

What we need to do is provide general guidance but let that plan unfold and improvise as we go. The best leaders do that in a way where they can lead even in the midst of uncertainty.

[00:13:13] Tommy Thomas: When you’re sitting around the table with your leadership team, you never want to be the smartest person at the table.

[00:13:19] John Sommerville: You know the genius with a thousand helpers, or five helpers eventually will find the limits of their abilities.

They’ll find the limits of their wisdom but if you create a culture where there is collaboration, even if the leader is the smartest person in the room they are never going to be smart enough to see everything. So there always needs to be an openness to ideas. If you continually squash the ideas of others, you’ll not be as effective.

I think collaboration, developing diverse teams, and listening before acting is extremely important.

[00:13:58] Tommy Thomas: Peter Drucker, the most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.

[00:14:06] John Sommerville: I think that’s true. I think that this is one of the problems in this soundbite era. When we develop talking points, as we listen to what leaders, organizations and others say they’re trying to shape a message.

It’s important to listen for what’s not being said, and this is one of the problems we have, I think, with the lack of sustained reflection that this digital age has led us to, where you can summarize everything in a couple hundred characters, we miss a lot of nuances.  It’s important to ask questions that maybe go beyond what’s being said.

[00:14:41] Tommy Thomas: Problems cannot be solved at the same level of thinking at which they were created. Albert Einstein.

[00:14:49] John Sommerville: I’ve not heard that one before. I don’t know what Einstein meant, but I can think of two ways that is true.

One is that sometimes the problem is created at a level where there needs to be more detail and more understanding of what really is going on. A quote that I’ve used a lot and I found to be true is that there is simplicity on the near side of complexity that is overly simplistic.

And then there’s simplicity on the far side of complexity that takes in account all the complexity and finds a way to work beyond it. It may be that what Einstein’s talking about is the idea that sometimes you need to dive deep into the details. And other times you need to lift yourself above the details to be able to see the big picture.

And both need to be incorporated into good decision-making. But it’s easy to get lost in the trees. And it’s sometimes easy also at the same time to maybe lift yourself too high so you don’t see. Some of the nuance and the details that are there.


[00:15:49] Tommy Thomas: Let’s switch over to board governance and board service.

I know you’ve served on, I won’t say countless, but certainly many boards. And I would imagine you’ve probably chaired two or three of them. When you think of a Board of Directors or Board of Trustees, what’s their purpose?

The purpose of the Board is to nurture and shepherd the mission of the institution.

[00:16:02] John Sommerville: Their purpose is to nurture and shepherd the mission of the institution.

And the people who are running the organization need to be managing and leading and all of that. But the board needs to do what it can to make certain that the mission is continuing. There’s not mission drift that the organization continues to fulfill its purposes. When they see either a leader leading the organization away from its mission or being ineffective at accomplishing its mission they need to intervene.

But they need to be leading at a governance level, making certain that the systems and structures are in place. So, the organization is equipped to accomplish what it needs to accomplish.

[00:16:46] Tommy Thomas: When you think of the best board chair you’ve ever observed or served under, give me some words and phrases that describe that person.

[00:16:53] John Sommerville: The people I’ve seen lead well are very clear about the difference between management and governance. They’re very clear about keeping the conversation at the level of mission, vision, and values. They are very good at keeping the organization accountable. Particularly the senior executive.

That’s the linking pin between the board and the administration. And they are I think relentless about making certain that the board functions really well and doesn’t start inserting itself. I’ve been on a couple of occasions around a board that was really a group of friends who liked hanging out together and they were they weren’t paying attention, and then I’ve been in other boards, and this is probably more common, where they were trying to reach down into management and meddle, and that’s ineffective and inappropriate.

[00:17:52] Tommy Thomas: Maybe this goes back to your earlier comment you may know Dr. Rebecca Basinger she says, Governing Boards are charged with safeguarding an institution’s ability to fulfill its mission with economic vitality. To this I add, responsibility for tending to the soul of the institution.

[00:18:12] John Sommerville: I think that I would put it slightly differently.

I think that there needs to be a heart in all that we do. This is not original with me, but the idea of orthodoxy. Ortho in Greek is the word for straight, and so orthodoxy is straight doctrine or, right doctrine. And then you often hear people talk about orthopraxy, that there also needs to be these actions that are consistent with your doctrinal position.

But the third, which is a neologism, is orthopathy. Path, pathos is the word for passions or even the heart. All three need to be there in an organization. So there needs to be right, if you think about a Christian, we need right doctrine, we need right behavior. And we also need the right heart.

And I have been around boards or been around, say, a church board or so, where people had all the right doctrine, they were focused on the right kinds of behavior, but they didn’t really have a passion for the church or the ministry that they’re leading. All three need to be there and the best boards that I’ve been around really believe in the mission of the organization, they’re clear about the kinds of behaviors they want to see, and they also love it.

They just love that organization or that church. And they want to see it achieve what it’s meant to achieve.

[00:19:37] Tommy Thomas: The Chair and the CEO must learn to dance together, and neither can stray very far from each other’s gaze or proceed independently.

The Chair and the CEO need to be able to find a balance between the accountability that the chair provides and the nurture and support and really encouragement and having that CEO or that board the organization’s president’s back.

[00:19:49] John Sommerville: I have seen CEOs and Board Chairs have a relationship that is just incredible. And I think that the Chair and the CEO need to be able to find a balance between the accountability that the chair provides and the nurture and support and really encouragement and having that CEO or that board the organization’s president’s back.

Leadership can be lonely, and a board chair can make a significant difference. Now, if the CEO gets out of line, the board chair is going to need to bring that kind of discipline and structure to it, but too many chairs either go to the extreme of not holding the organization leader accountable, but more often what they do is they forget that they need to be that cheerleader, encourager and support to help protect that leader.

And I’ve seen board chairs do that in really effective ways. 

[00:20:48] Tommy Thomas: Let’s go to board size. This guy, Ernest Happel, said the fewer board members, the better. If it’s 18, I’m just not interested.

[00:20:56] John Sommerville: I think it depends on the organization, but I do think that there is a critical mass. You can get too small.

Four or five, or six is probably too small for most boards in part, because if it has any geographic scope, if it’s a national board, you’re going to have a few that don’t show up each time. But once you get beyond eight or ten, what happens is you think you’re increasing participation, but you’re actually decreasing participation.

Because some people are either quiet or feel ill at ease speaking up when there are twelve or fifteen on a board. So your participation will go down. If you can, eight to 10 is I think the ideal size. Beyond that, I think it’s a problem, but there are boards that do that are larger, if the philanthropic needs of the organization if you have people who are significantly investing financially in the organization and want to be active in a positive way. I think boards that are larger, particularly educational institutions tend to have larger boards for that reason. So I would say generally that’s true, but not always.


[00:22:04] Tommy Thomas: Let’s go to succession planning. That’s something in my experience that not enough organizations do enough of in a timely way.

I recently heard a nonprofit CEO say, “When they want you to stay is the best time to leave”.

[00:22:20] John Sommerville: I think that there needs to be constant conversation with the CEO about the future. And sometimes they couch it as if you’re hit by a bus, who would you recommend? That’s the rudimentary way to approach that.

That’s really a transitional leader that you identify. But I think once a leader has been in an organization for four or five years there needs to be a beginning conversation about how’s your energy. How are you feeling about this? The leader owes the organization enough time and it depends on the size and the mission of the institution, but sometimes that’s a year or two years to say, I’m starting to sense from the Spirit that it’s time for me to move on.

And I’m not sure exactly when that will be. And then you have a conversation that begins to lead toward a transition. An orderly transition is invaluable in an organization when someone abruptly quits and there isn’t that time and it’s the responsibility of both the chief executive and the board itself to initiate that conversation. It can be hard because sometimes a leader is offended believing that question is coming because the board wants them to move on so it needs to be very carefully broached or vice versa the board believes that this person has lost interest in the job, and there needs to be some dialogue, but that transparency and honesty is both owed to each other. 

[00:23:50] Tommy Thomas: Once the decision’s been made, from your observation, how much time should go between the announcement and the new person being hired or promoted?

[00:24:00] John Sommerville: I think it’s different in different organizations. Churches sometimes need a gap, an intentional gap between the previous leader, especially if that person’s been there for a long time, whether it’s a founding pastor or a long-time successful pastor, there may need to be a gap and an intentional interim can be helpful.

That’s not always the way it is in para-church organizations and nonprofit organizations. There will need to be a time when you actually start the search. If the leader can stay through a transition, that can be really helpful. But generally, I think it takes about a year to do that process from the time that it’s being announced.

How long it takes to develop a new position profile and understand what the organization needs of its next leader may be a little different than the current leader. To be able to generate that, to be able to sort through possible candidates and make that it’s generally, I would think, a year that’s been my observation.

[00:24:57] Tommy Thomas: Let’s talk about the pros and cons of grooming and promoting from within versus hiring from the outside. See if you can debate both sides of that coin.

[00:25:09] John Sommerville: I think the fork in the road has to do with what does the organization need? I do believe that many of the best transitions are internal candidates.

They know the organization. If they are ready to take the step of moving up into that senior leader role, they already have trust. They already have experience. They understand things. And that can be, I would often lean in that direction. I think that’s often the best way to go. But you can’t compromise on what you need out of that next leader.

And if that person doesn’t exist in the organization, then an external candidate can be important. I think the other thing is if things are going well we definitely would lean toward an internal candidate, but if things have somehow gone off the rails for one reason or another, there’s a significant challenge, then sometimes an external leader can be necessary.

I will say that my observation is that insiders have a tendency to be slightly more successful than outsiders. There’s just something about knowing the organization, both for the leader and for the organization. There’s something about that knowledge of who you are and who the organization is that can be more.

[00:26:28] Tommy Thomas: What about this idea that the CEO stays around as an emeritus or in some role?

[00:26:34] John Sommerville: I’m not a fan of that. I think that that can feel like a cloud over a leader. I have seen cases emeritus. And what they do. I’ve heard of organizations where the Parachurch organization once I heard about where the previous president came to board meetings and expressed his opinion and the new leader took several years to be able to really assert his leadership.

That was not healthy. Generally, I think in a church it’s good for a pastor who’s leaving to separate and allow the new leader to begin to take the organization in a direction that might be a new direction. And parachurch organizations, I think the same thing. I’m not a fan of that.

[00:27:23] Tommy Thomas: Before COVID, I spoke several times to non-profits about succession planning, and one of the areas we talked about was the departing leader. One of my observations is that there’s probably a lot more of the departing leader’s identity tied up CEO than he or she might realize. Your observations.

[00:27:42] John Sommerville: I think that is often true. I think that’s a discipleship issue where I think all leaders need to be aware of how much their identity can get wrapped up in what they do, what they achieve, and what they accomplish. And our identity needs to be in Christ. I heard a leader one time say after leaving the organization that he was responsible for, he said, I no longer feel relevant.

And I was disappointed to hear that. Now, I’m not judging him. I’m sure that’s a process that I’ll go through as I move into the next chapter of my life. But I think we need to teach people that they are more than what they do. And I think it’s unfortunate if that happens, but I can see as a human we do get identified with what we do.  But it’s not healthy most likely.

[00:28:37] Tommy Thomas: So, if you get a call this week from somebody in the Twin Cities and they’ve been encouraged to join a board of a XYZ nonprofit they’re coming to you for counsel. What questions are you asking them or what questions do you want to make sure they get answered?

[00:28:55] John Sommerville: I would ask them first, is this an organization that you’re passionate about? Do you support them financially already? Is this an organization where you respect the leadership? Do you feel like you have something to offer? Is this an organization that you’re willing to give a few years to, because sometimes people say, I might do it for a year, just a year, just to figure out the basics of the organization.

 I once was asked to join a board and the person who was assigned to be my mentor, I asked him, I said what’s required on this board? He said it’s really an easy board. He said I get on an airplane, and I read the board book on the way to the meeting. And then you go sit in committee meetings.

It’s really easy. It’s the board I have to invest the least in. And I thought I’m not interested in this. And I found out when I got there that he was an ineffective board member and the best board members were really investing time. Don’t go on a board unless you’re willing to do some work, unless you’re willing to spend the time to give it what it needs.


[00:30:04] Tommy Thomas: Thank you for joining us today. If you are a first-time listener, I hope you will subscribe and become a regular. You can find links to all the episodes at our website.

If there are topics that you’d like for me to explore my email address is [email protected].  

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“I’m not a bit fan of the outgoing CEO staying around in an emeritus role.  That can be a cloud over the new leader.” -John Sommerville


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