September 8, 2014
In our business, there is nothing more beautiful and inspiring than an association Board of Directors that operates strategically and works hand-in-glove with its staff. The results can be awesome: continuous improvements to member value, growth in program participation, greater association recognition and influence, financial strength, and more.
Of course, a weak or unorganized Board and lack of a strong, collaborative relationship with staff will have detrimental effects: lack of organizational focus, diminishing value, empty or lackluster pipeline of future leaders, de-motivated staff, etc.
A recent informal survey of more than 130 association executives revealed the following as the 5 most relevant challenges association professionals face when working with Boards today:
- Board is too focused on operational or tactical matters, as opposed to strategic issues
- Board members don’t understand the role of the Board relative to the CEO and staff
- Board candidates are not adequately vetted in terms of competencies, ability to serve and their personal support for the organization’s central mission
- Poor leadership leads to unproductive meetings, distractions related to new “ideas,” lack of consensus building and decision making, lack of vision
- Board allows mission/program creep; fails to provide adequate resources for new programs and services; fails to eliminate unneeded programs
Working with elected leaders of associations, individually and collectively as a Board, to improve performance is among the most important functions we have as association professionals. Recently, I had the privilege of serving on an ASAE panel with several other AMC professionals to discuss how we go about maximizing Board performance. Here are some of the key takeaways.
Recruit and Orient Board Members Effectively
- When orienting new Officers and Board members, assess their strengths and weaknesses and adjust the orientation sessions accordingly. Before onboard, Board members will have diverse experiences and conceptions about serving in a leadership role. Identify those, and avoid one-size-fits-all approach to these orientation sessions.
- Take advantage of succession ladders. Implement training and orientation of upcoming officers well before they become Chairman.
- Prepare briefing and guiding documents to help Chairs keep Board meetings on track and to assure that critical decisions get made prior to adjournment.
Keep the Board Focused on Strategy
- Take advantage of Board creativity and passion by focusing that energy on the association’s vision, mission and strategies. Push policies that disallow introduction of new ideas in Board meetings unless they have been vetted ahead of time for strategic value and include a business case that addresses costs and resource requirements.
- Ensure and document for the Board how all programs and services map directly to association mission and objectives, and create tracking tools for ongoing assessment.
- Create a disciplined approach to evaluating performance of association programs and services. Have clear metrics to gauge value and costs, and include staff time when calculating costs.
- Recruit allies on the Board who support, and will insist on, a strategic approach to Board service and meetings. Find ways to illustrate or quantify the “costs” of Board micro-management and use it with leaders who prefer to play a management role, as opposed to a leadership role.
- Underscore at all meetings that “non-profit” is a tax status, not a business strategy. Create a Board culture that values a business approach to governance and management based on clear strategies and objectives, and a demand for and continuous delivery of relevant data and trends to measure results.
Make Board Training an Ongoing Practice
- Recruit new leaders year-round. Consider a separate Board Nomination and Development Committee involving former Board members and executive staff that annually evaluates Board performance, conducts gap analyses, provides feedback, and recruits against strong criteria for Board service.
- Consider third-party leadership training offered by ASAE and others, as well as articles and books to help underscore the proper role of Boards.
- Cultivate trust by being transparent about management challenges and concerns, implementing operational solutions, bringing strategic solutions to the table and advocating for them, demonstrating competencies, respecting the association’s values and traditions. Soon, Board members will view their management company and staff as true strategic partners with clearly defined responsibilities and authorities that complement those of the Board.