Are Your Association Board Members Slackers?

How do you measure engagement of your association board? Aren’t volunteer boards engaged by their very definition? They aren’t paid, so isn’t it enough that they just show up most of the time?

A few weeks ago, we wrote about the role of boards in taking association strategy sessions more seriously. While we believe that making and actively stewarding effective strategy is one of the most critical areas requiring strong engagement, there are a number of other areas where we need our boards to be engaged. So much of our focus on association board performance is what happens in meetings that we neglect all the areas where we often need board assistance. Every board is different and so is every board member, but here are the first 5 of our top 10 where association boards generally have room for improvement. We will cover 6-10 in our next blog.

  1. Attendance is the obvious one and although we have actual bylaws setting out performance requirements, most boards are hesitant to take action when attendance goes off the rails. There are of course legitimate reasons why people cannot attend board meetings. If travel and other work obligations are in constant conflict with association board attendance, then give the spot to someone else.
  2. Assistance with local engagement is critical to many associations and a strong barometer of board engagement. For most smaller associations, board members are the only representatives of your association on the ground. Associations that don’t have strong chapters or staff that can fly across the country count on board members to build and maintain local engagement. How does your board measure up?
  3. Access to their personal network is a critical measure of board member engagement. Associations don’t just elect board members because of what they know…but who they know. Associations often need access to their own industry or practice area and the most direct path is usually through the board. If your board won’t make occasional introductions, are they engaged and effective?
  4. Active engagement in your conference seems easy enough but there are so many examples when board members are more of hindrance than a  help at association conferences. Do your board members clump together or do they fan out and help members maximize their networking and overall conference experience? We need board members to take a very visible and active role across a range of important conference duties.
  5. Sponsorship support from their own company and others is one of the ultimate tests of board engagement. While this does not apply to every type of association, many of us need boards to tap networks to get us funding. Asking for money or just making an introduction to staff to ask for money takes a certain skill set and makes many volunteer board members uneasy. But isn’t this one area where we really need their active support?
Association Board Engagement. Are your board members slackers?

Association Board Engagement. Are your board members slackers?

Why Are Association Boards So Scared to Invest in Strategy?

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

Association Board Risk Taking

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

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 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.