Fear of Failure or Fear of Hard Work?

Fear of failure is another one of my favorite euphemisms. Of course we are all afraid to fail and this fear could certainly be heightened in less enlightened workplaces where an overall culture of fear or intimidation is prevalent. In some organizations, people really are afraid to fail. That is not what I am talking about. I’m referring to situations mostly where the fear should be gone, but we just are not putting forward the effort to move ahead.

Let me give you an example. When I help associations define their strategy, we always try to identify a handful of strategic imperatives. Essentially, what are those 5 or 6 critical priorities that must be accomplished in the next 12 months if we hope to be on track to our vision? Invariably, most organizations define at least one or two strategic imperatives that start with the word “leverage.” “Leverage our member data.” “Leverage our XYZ system to maximize value.” This makes sense. We build systems and processes and practices and we just don’t use them effectively enough to get our value out. These things take time. But what would you think about a strategy where every single strategic imperative started with the work “leverage?” I know what I think. I think those organizations start a lot of things and don’t have the discipline to finish them and follow through to achieve their original objectives.

I suggest we rename fear of failure to fear of follow through.

Fear of Failure in Associations

Association Procrastination: Isn’t It Just Laziness?

Procrastination is the real classic euphemism for laziness. The dictionary definition of procrastination is “putting off or delaying an action to a later time.” Is there really a distinction between putting something off until the last minute, and putting something off in hopes of never doing it at all?

Why do we procrastinate in management of our associations and execution of our association strategy? Not because we really want to do a particular task tomorrow…it’s really because we don’t want to do that task at all. Ever. Teenagers put stuff off because they hope we will eventually stop asking and they will never have to do whatever it is. Boards, volunteers and staff put things off because they hope whatever it is will magically take care of itself or that if they wait long enough, it just won’t be important enough to bother about eventually. Tell me if I’m wrong that this happens all the time in your association. I see it with clients every day.

The truth is that procrastination is a self fulfilling prophecy. Of course the benefits of executing a particular action will diminish over time, or ignore it long enough and the new problems caused dwarf the original objective. I am not exaggerating to say that every single association client I have worked with has a list of projects and initiatives that they never get to. You know the list I’m talking about. Of course, we lack focus and strategic clarity so there are too many things on our lists…that’s not procrastination…that’s just more things than we can get to. But the truth is, many projects and initiatives on those lists are really worthwhile and could provide real benefit to our association and our members if we executed them. But in the back of our mind, we all know that if we leave projects on the list long enough, they will eventually just go away. Perhaps we should just rename procrastination “ignore it until it goes away.”

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Association Board Codes of Conduct Deliver Poor ROI

To help promote common understanding of and adherence to what constitutes acceptable or required behavior, many boards adopt an explicit code of conduct that define the standards to which directors must adhere.  Unfortunately, a compliance-based approach to board culture does not necessarily engender constructive group dynamics and respectful relationships.

Codes of conduct and other rules-based approaches to influencing director behavior cannot address the common cultural ailments faced by many boards:

  • discussion that is based on opinion rather than factual data;
  • long and protracted discussions that lose focus on the original topic;
  • the frequent introduction of “wildcard” issues not originally on the meeting agenda;
  • an inability to explain or strong defend a Board’s decision;
  • a lack of support by every director of the collective decision of the Board; and,
  • a nagging feeling that decisions do not represent the best thinking of the Board.

Evidence of a healthy board culture most often shows up in the decision-making process.  Once a board has reached a decision, all directors need to take ownership for and support the outcome, regardless of personal views.  Individual directors need to respect the collective nature of board decision-making, recognizing that there is rarely one right answer or approach to addressing a particular issue or opportunity.  While good debate and deliberation are hallmarks of a healthy board within the confines of the boardroom, director solidarity in public is also a critical requirement.

As much as board structure and governance processes play a critical role in the decision-making process, it is really the boardroom culture that will determine the quality of those decisions, the health and effectiveness of the board and an organization’s success in achieving its vision.

Association Boardroom Behavior

Fear of Change is a Fallacy

Think of the last five situations in your association strategy execution that were “all talk and no action.” Was it really a fear of change that prevented progress? If you really dig deep into each situation, you will likely find one or two humans that blocked real progress because they just didn’t make the effort. I work with people of all intellects, and I can honestly say I come across very few unintelligent people…but I certainly see my share people that just won’t do the work required to make real change and progress.

In associations big and small, you will find individuals that simply don’t want to put forth any more effort today than they did yesterday. Perhaps you know someone who won’t pitch in as part of a team to get things done, or won’t learn a new way of doing things. Do you work with someone who will in no way put their neck on the line?  Whether its school or work or volunteering, high achievers often just pick up the slack because they don’t want the work to suffer, and it is often just easier to “do it myself.”

“Fear of change” may be the most overused synonym for laziness in the association workplace, but we use many terms in our organizations, that if we look closely enough are really just euphemisms or code for laziness. Stay tuned as we explore 8 common euphemisms for laziness.

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Association Boardroom Candor Often MIA

At the heart of a healthy boardroom behavior is the degree of candor between the association Board and Management.  By candor, I mean that freedom with which directors are able to raise issues and speak out.  A lack of candor slows down decision-making and represents one of the most significant obstacles to board success.  A lack of candor blocks smart ideas, fast action, and directors from effectively using their skills and experience.

Candor helps to ensure all views and issues are put forward for consideration so that directors are equipped to make the best decision possible relative to organizational strategy and other corporate considerations.  This inherently means that a healthy board culture exists when contrarian views, various options and constructive challenging or testing of conventional thinking and the status quo are welcomed, encouraged and expected.

Poor performance in the boardroom is usually indicative of a failure to appropriately recruit, orient, and integrate new board members.  Without being properly equipped, board members may not understand their fiduciary responsibilities and individual directors may not embrace board work as teamwork.  Many boards, though properly structured and supported with governance best practices, still encounter troublesome behaviors that point to poor people skills on the part of individual directors.

If a good defense against director liability is a good offense, boards put themselves at risk if they don’t take responsibility for their own performance.  Key to this is adopting lead governance processes and practices, implementing them effectively, and assessing whether they are contributing to the board’s performance in meaningful ways – all with a high degree of candor.

Association Boardroom Behavior Trumps Structure and Process

When looking back at the evolution of governance over the past 20 years or so, there’s been an interesting and marked progression from a structural focus in the early days to a recognition that board work processes have a significant impact on good governance.  More recently, there’s been a recognition that board culture is the third, and perhaps most important, leg of the governance stool.

Association board culture really speaks to the group dynamics and boardroom behaviors among directors and with management:  the free expression of ideas and issues, the trust and confidence among directors and with management, and a collective focus on the organization’s mission and vision in the decision-making process.

The basic fiduciary requirement that directors act in the best interests of the corporation and exercise a duty of care is often viewed in legal terms.  Similarly, director independence has been defined in terms of structural perspective with respect to management.  Both have significant behavioral and board culture implications that trump any legal or structural requirements when it comes to board effectiveness.

Rather than defining director independence in terms of an individual’s relationship with management, real, or behavioral independence, is more about a director’s ability to exercise meaningful oversight and holding management accountable, without sacrificing the ability to also partner with management to help the organization deliver on its goals.

Association Boardroom Behavior

Balancing Art & Science in the Association Boardroom

Serving on an association board is not an intuitive skill.  The role of a director is both art and science.  It must be learned and refined over time through practice and ongoing education.  An effective process to support the board in its work is an annual assessment designed to root out issues before they become irreparable problems – issues related to board leadership, board culture and behaviours, the board/management relationship, and other factors that determine board success.

 When I think of healthy boardroom behavior and a constructive partnership dynamic between directors and management, I look for substantive evidence that:

  • Directors have the opportunity and the freedom to ask the substantive and relevant questions that will give them the necessary comfort and confidence that they have fulfilled their oversight obligations;
  • the relationship between the Board and Management is characterized by the highest possible level of trust and open communication;
  • it is not acceptable for Directors to simply conform, acquiesce, criticize or control matters during boardroom deliberations;
  • the Board understand their role and that of Management and guards against becoming operationally focused, micromanaging or acting in a manner that is passive and subservient;
  • Management regards the Board as a strategic partner and asset and actively seeks the advice and counsel of Directors; and,
  • meetings characterized by fulsome dialogue and debate with Management respecting the need for Directors to conduct meaningful due diligence.

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Association Board-Staff Relationship

A clear and shared understanding of the roles and accountabilities of the board and staff are critical in creating a foundation for a productive relationship.  Many association boards rely on mirroring what peer organizations do or what best practices prescribe.  Legislation or regulation usually only provides a high level framework that is rarely helpful when it comes to success in the boardroom.

Generally speaking, the role of directors is to direct and give oversight. Exactly what these duties mean needs to be considered within the broader organizational context. There are choices to be made, largely based on the depth of staff expertise.

Once specific accountabilities are determined for both the board and staff, an even more critical matter is seeking agreement on how these two power groups will work together.

I believe there are two principles that help form a constructive, results-focused board/staff relationship.

First, a healthy board/staff dynamic depends on a common appreciation of their roles, mutual respect, open and ongoing dialogue, and strong board leadership.

Second, board/staff relationships tend to be either too collegial or too adversarial.  When the former prevails, accountability is put at risk; in the latter case, the relationship can suffer from lack of trust.  The optimal board/staff dynamic depends on establishing and maintaining an appropriate balance of partnership and accountability where the board acts both as a resource to management while holding them responsible for results.

Association Board Culture and Behaviors

Adherence to governance best practices don’t stand a chance of impacting board effectiveness in the face of wonky board behavior.

The level of director of engagement, the thoroughness of deliberations, and the quality of decisions make up the litmus test for association board effectiveness –- a test boards can easily fail if it is populated with dysfunctional director types who, with their personal agendas, only serve to undermine a productive board culture.

The root cause of a dysfunctional board is ineffective director recruitment.  A narrow focus on skills, experience and influence leaves out a critical factor in a director’s effectiveness – their ability to function well within a group decision-making process.

While democratic elections by an organization’s “owners” sound good in theory, building the right board team demands a carefully managed mix of skills, experience, personality types and understanding of stakeholder issues.  What motivates a director to serve is far more critical to overall board effectiveness than the doors they can open, their achievements, or reputation.

Association Board Leadership

A board’s overall effectiveness can often be linked directly to the quality of association board leadership and the ability of the board chair to focus and leverage the directors’ collective efforts.

As such, the role and influence of the board chair on any board’s success cannot be overstated.  The board leader’s job is a complex one demanding significant, well-developed skills to foster a constructive board culture, facilitate effective oversight, and nurture a productive relationship with staff or management.  Board leadership is arguably the single most important board success factor.

The chair plays a critical role in helping the board act independently, keeping directors focused on the organization’s mission, ensuring the board understands its responsibilities, and maintaining the appropriate boundaries with staff.

Overseeing board logistical issues is the easy part of a board chair’s job.  The real work comes when, as the board’s player/coach, the chair works to ensure a constructive dialogue between the board and staff, that the board works as a cohesive team, and that contentious issues are proactively addressed to maintain unity.

Association board members and stakeholders look to the board chair to take the lead to ensure proper oversight.  This includes ensuring that keyboard processes such as director recruitment, orientation and ongoing education, and board assessment are undertaken appropriately.  Perhaps most relevant is the need for effective stakeholder communication as a means of engendering the trust and confidence a board needs if it is to be given the space, support, and discretion to do its job.