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.
A strategy session is arguably the most serious and important thing that any association can undertake. As we often tell participants of our association strategy sessions: “This is not an exercise.” It may feel like an exercise because we often have our board and leadership together away from the day to day, but ultimately we are there to make strategy.
Think carefully about the intent of your session. Do you truly intend to make strategy that will guide and constrain future actions and investments? Do you intend to see actual progress within a year and dramatic progress within 3 years as as a result of your session? If you plan to have an interesting exercise and make some vague proclamations about the future, you will see minimal results. With the wrong strategic intent, you will be having the same strategy conversation again and again.
How do you take an association strategy session seriously? While there are a number of tactical things you can do (which we will talk about in the next blog), the most important way to ensure progress is to openly discuss and agree to the seriousness of your session, the expected outcomes and hardcore objectives. Your Executive Director, Board Chair and facilitator should discuss and agree to the following well in advance of the session:
- What specifically will be different or better as a result of the session? What do we truly hope to accomplish during the session?
- Will the team create a strategy during the session that actually binds this board and future boards?
- Will most of our association’s strategic spending in the coming years be largely dictated by our decisions in and shortly after the session?
- Will most of our structure, resourcing and hiring decisions be dictated by our decisions in the session?
- Will the decisions in this session likely cause us to stop, de-resource or back-burner some of the projects we are working on today?
If you answer the above questions affirmatively, you have strong intent to be successful. Your next challenge is to convince all your session participants that they are making strategy that will impact your association (and often your industry or profession) for many years to come. Not everyone will believe you and not everyone will want the responsibility that comes with this level of seriousness and obligation. From our experience many participants will be truly surprised at the expected impact of the session and most of them will step up to make an effective strategy.
Association Strategy Sessions
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.
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.
There is a strange dichotomy in associations in recent years. While more associations have more money sitting in reserves than ever before, boards are reticent to invest in strategy. We have all heard how public companies are holding unprecedented amounts of cash at the expense of shareholder value. Those companies should either invest in future growth or release bigger dividends to shareholders. This is analogous to the state of many associations today.
My biggest frustration after every successful planning process with associations is the hesitation to invest even small percentages of reserves in strategy. This money ultimately belongs to your members and they expect you to put it to the best use to drive your association’s mandate forward. Making strategy is the absolute obligation of the board of the day. It may be scary, but today’s board must make real strategy that binds future boards and drives future decisions across the operation. Real strategy almost always requires an investment.
I’m not advocating putting your organization at undue risk in future tough times. I’m advocating modest investments to make real change for the benefit of your members. Do you want to grow? Do you want to improve your education or advocacy efforts? Do you want to drive greater value to members? Make the investment.