Last blog we discussed the top 5 indicators your association board might be slacking…or at least lacking full engagement. We have had plenty of feedback on the blog and suggestions for 5 more indicators to round out a top 10 list.
- Active and effective committee leadership is critical to success for many associations. While there are many board members that step up and provide the leadership required, there are many other examples of board members that pay lip service to this role. Association managers are counting on board members to drive the mandate and work of important committees forward, but all too often low committee engagement just causes more work for staff.
- Active engagement in cultivating volunteers is something board members often see as the sole domain of association staff, but this is a critical space where we need board support. Board members are in the best position to turn regular members into volunteers and volunteers into super volunteers. Association management can help with a clear and disciplined process for volunteer engagement, but board members need to be prepared to take an active role.
- Active participation in board succession may be as obvious as attendance, but many board members pay mere lip service to their role. Any first time association board member will tell you that ensuring effective succession is central to association sustainability, but do they know what that means? Again, association management will provide a strong process, but we need every board member cultivating future directors and ensuring a full and strong slate every time.
- Director skill development is also given cursory and spotty attention by many board members. Beyond director orientation and initial board training, we need directors to constantly be honing their skills to really serve associations effectively. We may recruit directors for their specific skills, but we need them to learn the basics of the association. After one year on your board, can all your board members tell you your association’s annual budget, or reserves? What about board members that have served many years? From our experience, the vast majority cannot.
- AMC oversight is simply the most important function that many boards overlook. With an average of 50% of revenues going to their association management company, boards have an obligation to members to ensure they are getting full value year after year. While we do see boards that get obsessed with monitoring and squeezing their AMC, we also see boards that let the tail wag the dog.
Association board members are mostly tireless, passionate volunteers and we love them for it, but there are too many directors that are passive and disengaged. Imagine the success of your association if every board member was fully engaged in all the right areas.
In the last blog we discussed the serious side of taking association board strategy sessions seriously. This blog will focus on the tactical tips to achieve the same goal. We have run nearly a thousand strategy sessions over the past 15 years and learned many valuable lessons…some the hard way.
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Here are a few basics to running a great strategy session:
- Hire a professional facilitator. While the wrong facilitator can backfire terribly, some due diligence can ensure success. This is simple: do not hire a facilitator for an important session without glowing references from another association.
- Take your meeting off site. You must separate your session both physically and mentally from day to day operations if you want to get strategic. Make sure the session doesn’t become all about the venue…just take it off site.
- Set ground rules up front. This is as simple as it sounds and yet almost never gets done: ask your planning team how they will conduct themselves and what they hope to accomplish before you start. For example, if you can’t get your group to agree to keep the discussion confidential, you have a low likelihood of real success.
- Conduct individual interviews in advance. Your facilitator should do this and it is critical to session success for many reasons. Many people don’t do well in a group setting and will provide a wealth of insight in a one-on-one phone call. The facilitator can use this to stoke the session. Volunteer board members have day jobs and just don’t give a lot of thought to your strategy, but interviews within 2 weeks of a session will get them thinking strategically and make them better participants.
- Use simple tricks to drive real participation. Some people think, speak and perform well in strategy sessions and some do not. Facilitation tricks need to ensure your strategy isn’t based entirely on the views of your eloquent board members. Give lots of time for thinking and list making individually, in pairs and in small groups before opening conversation up to the larger group. This will help keep people awake too.
- Use pre-reads for good not evil. Too many association managers use pre-reads and existing strategy documents to drive a predetermined conclusion…their conclusion. We also see irrelevant pre-read materials pushed just to appear effective. Use pre-reads only if necessary and then only to educate and prepare. Be open to the wisdom of your board.
Association boards love to make strategy, but they are often reluctant to adequately invest in those strategies when the time comes. Even after a rough patch, associations in North America are sitting on bigger financial reserves than in any time in history. Yet, the hangover of a few lean years has many association boards in cost cutting mode. It is the obligation of association boards to:
- Make decisions that will grow organizations and sustain their mandates
- Make decisions that will bind future boards
- Invest their members’ money (because that’s what reserves are) on their behalf
We have seen many association clients shrink themselves to irrelevance while they watch their reserves dwindle over a painful decade or more. Like a cycle of death, association boards see a decline in attendance or an increase in competition for example for their conference or professional development. Instead of investing in future innovation, growth or alternate revenue sources they cut expenses to make up for revenue shortfalls. The result is that the conference or PD becomes less valuable to members and revenue drops further. Next comes the decision to drop prices because the board no longer trusts their value proposition…and the cycle continues.
Association board members: your paid staff need you to make and invest in big strategic decisions. They need your leadership to take real, but calculated, risks for the long term sustainability of your organization.
Association Board Risk Taking
I have finally released the Strategy and Business Planning Toolkit for Associations. This is the first toolkit to be released in our new venture: Association Hub.
As the name implies, this is a comprehensive resource guide to help associations, agencies and non-profits plan better. This Toolkit provides association managers and boards a complete resource to ensure more effective and integrated strategic, operational, tactical and financial planning.
Please take a moment to look at the full description on our site.
There is also a mock-up of the download page that buyers receive access to. Like all the toolkits that we will launch on Association Hub, the Strategy and Planning Toolkit is totally focused and fully comprehensive. Our goal is to help build skills and provide all the tools to plan effectively. This particular toolkit includes 400 pages of documentation, 29 videos and 50 tools and templates.
Wiggle proof plans start with a vision for the association that is written as a guide for board and management rather than a marketing piece for your website. Every statement about the future must be challenged with the same questions:
- How will we know we have arrived?
- How will we measure success when we get there?
- How will you and I be held personally accountable for the success or failure of achieving each part of the vision?
This is huge stretch for most associations and program areas because we have been trained to be vague about the future. We think visions need to sound good enough to put in a brochure or on our website. This isn’t true. We must endeavor to create a vision of the future that’s actionable and measurable. Whether it’s for yourself, your team, your program, or the entire association, your vision needs to compel people to do stuff and scare them a little at the same time. Whether it’s for your team or your entire association, building a bullet proof vision is the best way to start at the top of the pyramid to remove much of the permission that exists today for slow progress. Most people do not want to fail. If we make the path to a shared vision clearer, compelling and more measurable, most of us will follow that path.
Proceeding with no data can be careless, even foolhardy. Unfortunately, as you know, that happens all the time. That’s another kind of laziness altogether when we are just too lazy to perform reasonable due diligence to make an informed decision, so we make an uninformed one. We shoot from the hip. We’ll talk about that later.
Right now, I’m focused on the opposite thing. I’m focused on those situations where we keep asking for more data in hopes that the thing awaiting execution just fades away. Or like a court case, we create so much confusion that we sow reasonable doubt, and decision making is paralyzed.
Paralysis by analysis. Isn’t this really just another stalling technique? Isn’t this really just a form of high brow procrastination? Another way to keep backburnering something until it goes away? There are real fears hidden in this one. There’s the fear of making a decision that will turn out to be wrong. There’s the fear of making a well informed strategic bet. It’s a fear of relying on our experience and living up to our seniority to make an assumption. As association manager, as association executives, as the people running our organizations, this is what we get paid for. We are being paid to make well informed decisions, predict trends, make assumptions and take risks. We are being paid to make strategy.
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.
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.
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.
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.