Board Management

A Conversation with the newly-elected Chair of the Buffalo & Erie County Naval & Military Park

Terry McGuire is the first in our series of talking to non-profit experts in the WNY area. With decades of leadership experience ranging from the military to the private sector, Terry has been involved with a number of area non-profits, most significantly including the WNY Veterans Housing Coalition and the Buffalo & Erie County Naval & Military Park.

Alex: So Terry, tell me a little bit about your background here in Western New York. I know you’re a native!

Terry: Well, I had a terrific, middle-class childhood in Amherst, New York. It was a lot like growing up in Mayberry—very old school. I went to school with kids who had families that were financially struggling as well as kids who had a lot of family wealth. I knew early on, in elementary school even, that I wanted to stand out from my three older brothers in some way. I wanted to be well-rounded. So to me, that meant trying to get better grades, display artistic talent, play in the school band and orchestra, and be good in sports too. I wanted my parents to be proud of me—so I guess I had a lot of fourth child ambition!

A:  So do you feel you meet that early goal of standing out?

T: Yikes! Well, the grades were a touchy subject for me. I failed second grade but got better with age. That early failure stung hard, seeing your friends advance, but I was back on track in a few years, and I managed to graduate in the top 25% of my class. That being said, I still had to do a year at the Army’s prep school at Fort Monmouth, NJ to get better SAT scores in order to be appointed by my Congressman to West Point. Many think that West Point is the best leadership school in the United States and probably in the world. West Point nearly killed me but I did finally graduate…near the bottom of my class! I graduated and ended up doing well in my professional military schools throughout my career and, more recently, graduate school. So overall, I went in a very different direction than my brothers and found my own definition of success!

A: When I met you, you had recently finished your term as the Chairman of the Board at the WNY Veterans Housing Coalition and were about to retire from the Army as a Lieutenant Colonel. Now, you’ve just been elected Chair of the Board of Directors at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park. You’ve had a lot of leadership experience! How did West Point, and your other military experiences, shape your approach to leadership?

T: I learned one of my foundational lessons when I was in US Army Ranger School—never quit on yourself, even when failure appears to be imminent. If you fail a few combat patrols at Ranger School they throw you out of the 58-day course, and the patrols we were leading were graded heavily by our peers—both other officers and enlisted men. Everyone is always bone-tired exhausted, and the whole experience is set up to simulate combat conditions, so you don’t get enough sleep or enough food. I vividly remember one jungle phase patrol I was leading in the Florida panhandle where the weather was essentially a tropical storm—super windy with torrential rain. It was so dark that night that you couldn’t even see the fingers in front of your eyes. I thought the patrol was going very badly on our movement to our mission objective and I was certain I was going to fail. But lo and behold, when I was finally relieved of the patrol, the Ranger instructor pulled me aside and said that I had passed the patrol because even though things weren’t going well, I “never quit or showed fear.” That message has stuck with me to this day. If you quit on yourself, it’s easier for you to accept the shortcomings of others. As a leader, you never quite have that luxury as your personal shortcomings can often mean success or failure for your organization’s mission. There aren’t many quitters who can think asymmetrically or in out of the box ways to find a solution to a problem!

 A:  How does that translate to board leadership?

T: Board management can be messy business! You have very passionate people and volunteer committee folks working for free and who want to get things done for the mission of the organization. They want to do a great job. That said, all that positive board energy, if not harnessed and focused properly with a good strategic plan, will dissipate as quickly as a desert rain storm. You’ll need to continue to hydrate and inspire the Board. As a corollary, you must take steps quickly to mitigate negative energy. If you have board members you feel aren’t pulling their weight, then something has not been addressed or communicated properly on your expectations of them. In those cases, it’s time for candor. You have to ask them to consider if they’re involved in the organization to be part of a working board or if they are there to pad their CV to garner higher community status. A good ethics and disclosure policy that Board members should be prepared to sign helps to weed these types of people out before they join.

A good Board handbook with policies, bylaws, and a letter of expectations should be issued to the entire Board. Effective military units, private companies, not-for-profits, and organizations are built on trust and teamwork. To me, for a Board, this means an understanding and commitment on the tasks that need collaboration. Very few not-for-profits can afford a Board of high-performing individuals working in siloed, vertical efforts, especially when it comes to the most important Board responsibility: fundraising. Everyone has to work as a team to be successful, including staff and volunteers.

A:  So you started out on the Board of Directors and have now been elected to the Board Chair position at the Naval Park. What are the most important duties that come with that position?

T: Two things come immediately to my mind – the workloads of board members and my partnership and relationship with our full-time President and CEO, Paul Marzello. We have several talented and fully committed board members, but unfortunately, they do most of the heavy lifting as officers and chairs of committees. While this is not unusual among NFP boards like ours, I can’t just sit there and let them get burned out or have them ever feel that their efforts are not well appreciated.  Unanticipated board turnover wastes our effort, time, resources…and ruins momentum. So…I see my most important job as recruiting, developing, and retaining the best Board of Directors possible to execute our mission. The working relationship I have with our President and CEO is equally as important, and we have worked to develop well-established boundaries. That said, we must be unified on our work efforts towards the objectives of our recently adopted strategic and master plan. Constant communication is key…we speak to each other daily and exchange emails and texts often. I meet face to face with our CEO weekly. Any perceived fissures between us in a small city like ours can be easily detected….they can not only destroy board morale but  fundraising efforts among government, private, and other donation sources too.

A:  As you know, this is an interview for the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network. So as someone who has experience in the nonprofit realm, what sage advice would you give young nonprofit professionals?

T: I think it’s important to meet each day with an important self-awarenesss question—what am I doing to produce real value for the organization? Are my efforts really focused and synchronized to meet the goals of the mission statement? Is there duplication of effort within the organization? Take the time to look at your job description, and make sure you understand your role and your performance objectives. If you’re doing too many other things that are distracting you from your primary responsibilities, it may be time for a conversation with your supervisor.

A: You sometimes describe yourself as a little bit old school, so how well do you relate to your younger peers?

T: Well as a younger baby boomer, I have learned a lot of good things from my millennial friends and associates. Most importantly, I have learned to examine what is truly essential in life for happiness – better friendships and personal relationships, better health and lifestyles, and more effective work habits. Balance! That now means working smarter, shorter hours and not necessarily harder and longer hours to get the results you are trying to achieve. My military deployments, and twice coming home safely has made me appreciate how short, fragile, and fleeting life is, and how you just have to put the small stuff, the BS, behind you. That said, that ambition bug to be exceptional as the fourth child still makes me jump out of bed every morning!

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