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Strategies to Maximize Your Board’s Potential
By Mark O. Thorsby, CAE, Vice President Consulting Services, SmithBucklin

Approaching a new calendar year is a great time to reassess what is and is not working within your organization’s board of directors. During my career, I have been privileged to serve on more than two dozen boards and consult with many others. Many of these boards were highly impactful and strategic. Others spent too much time focusing on the minutia of their associations, which distracted them from their primary role — governance. When this happened, board members grew frustrated and weary. They felt unfulfilled with their service. In addition, for some of the associations, the lack of focus became apparent to the membership as the organization delivered less value to them.

As you look ahead to 2015, consider the following strategies to help keep you and the board focused.

Focus on the Ends, Not the Means

The board’s role is governance. Period. And governance is about mission fulfillment. Typically, a board spends a great deal of time on structure and process (e.g., board size, terms, election process, etc.). While those issues are important, they should be addressed after the board has a shared voice and vision to answer the following end-focused questions:

• Where are we going?
• What do we want to accomplish?
• Why are we going where we are going?
• Why do we want to accomplish what we have chosen?
• When do we envision this happening?

These questions provide a basic framework to keep the board’s precious time focused on mission fulfillment. Once the board identifies the answers to these questions, all other issues (size, terms, etc.) and decisions should be aligned to achieve the association’s mission.

As you answer the questions above, here are some words of warning: If the board is spending significant time on the “how” or “who” questions, it is likely focusing too much on “the means.” Stop. That is the association staff’s role. You will know if the board is focused on operations if it is debating these questions:

• How are we going to get there?
• How much is this going to cost?
• Who is going to do it?

Equip, Challenge and Hold Staff Accountable for “the Means”

A lot of business occurs in your association. If the board is focused on “the end,” then the chief staff officer (e.g., executive director, president, CEO) will be focused on “the means.” Here are some suggestions for helping them to be most effective:

• Set clear performance expectations. Ensure that the chief staff officer has clear, measurable and realistic expectations and goals. To ensure alignment, it is useful to include him or her in related board discussions. In addition, put the expectations in writing. Hold him or her accountable and regularly assess progress. It is important to celebrate when expectations are met or exceeded, and celebrate the successes together.
• Be clear about decision making. Ensure your chief staff officer does not defer to the board regarding decisions that should be made independently. It is appropriate that he or she asks the board clarifying questions for direction, but ultimately, the chief staff officer was hired to provide answers and put them into play. Also, ensure your chief staff officer knows that delegating decisions to other staff is acceptable but delegating accountability is not. Ultimately, he or she must accept full accountability.
• Challenge respectfully. Debate can and should be expected between a board and the chief staff officer. But, the board’s responsibility is to establish a shared vision and speak with a common voice. As a board member, it is your responsibility to ask questions. I have found this phrase to be very useful: “Help me better understand…”

I also have seen strong boards do a self-assessment at the end of each meeting that includes the chief staff officer. Directors and the chief staff officer ask themselves: “Did we spend our time and energy on the end or on the means?” And if necessary, they resolve to operate differently at the next meeting. This is a great way to establish an effective governance culture.

Disagree in Private, Agree in Public

You are on the board because you are passionate and committed to your organization’s success. And when you discuss end-focused questions, you will not always agree with each other. While it is perfectly acceptable to respectfully express a dissenting opinion at the board table, as a board you have the responsibility to speak to the members of your association with a common voice and vision. Once a board decision is made — regardless of your personal point of view — you have an obligation to publicly support it.

Measure What Matters Most

Albert Einstein once quipped: “What counts can’t always be counted…and what can be counted doesn’t always count.” Measuring success has been a perpetual challenge for boards. Too often, boards track data merely because it is available. A great example is membership growth. While membership growth is important and virtually every board tracks it, focusing primarily on it may not be the most accurate way to assess whether your association is fulfilling its mission.

If your association wants to be the primary source of thought leadership within your industry or profession, then measure thought leadership. The metrics will tell you if the association is fulfilling its mission. And if you truly are the established thought leader, growth will be a natural byproduct of your mission.

Another article in this edition of Board Forward outlines the National Association of Orthopaedic Nurses’ (NAON) vision to promote research and encourage effective communication between and among orthopaedic nurses. To measure its effectiveness, NAON’s board routinely commissions member needs assessments to determine perceived member value. Based on the data, NAON realigns its offerings against its strategic priorities. The result? NAON’s membership rates are at its highest levels since 2008.

Not-for-Profit Is a Tax Term

If the board does not run the association like a business, then the association will not be in business. Remember the economic downturn from 2008 to 2010? The boards that successfully navigated those years are the ones that had higher expectations than just breaking even each year.

Cash helps enhance member value, drive growth, mitigate risk and provide flexibility for your association. It all starts with your governance and building a financial plan to fulfill your association’s mission. One of the board’s basic principles should be to ensure that revenues exceed expenses each year. To help make that so, the following questions should be routinely discussed and addressed:
  • Are we investing where it matters most?
  • Do our investments line up with our strategic priorities?
  • What do we need to do more of? What do we need to do less of?
  • Do we have financial flexibility?
  • Are we building reserves? How much is enough in our reserves? When do we spend our reserves?
For additional information about financial management, review Kaye Englebrecht’s article: “How to Better Manage an Association’s Reserves.”

Let It Go

Finally, at an individual level, if you are more of a detriment to the board than an asset, resign with dignity. I have resigned a couple of times when I did not feel like I was making a contribution or when I was not right for the board culture. Here is how you can test if this may be true of you:
  • You dread going to board meetings. When you do attend, you do not enjoy yourself.
  • You find yourself in constant disagreement with the board, the chief staff officer or both.
  • You view any board assignment as a burden.
  • You feel half-hearted about anything the association or board does.
Remember: You are a volunteer working with other volunteers. If you are not having fun and making a positive contribution, then you are wasting your own precious time. To fulfill its mission, the board needs directors who are “all in” and fully committed. It is OK to gracefully step aside. You will actually be respected for it.

In the end, your time on your association’s board is limited, and it comes on top of your full-time job and responsibilities to your family, home and community. I have worked with thousands of board members, and the best all have one thing in common: a strong desire to make the most impact possible during their service. I wish I knew the aforementioned strategies before I started my board service journey almost 40 years ago. I hope they prove useful to you and your fellow board members in focusing time, energy, resources and leadership on what matters most — the organization and members you serve.


  Mark O. Thorsby, vice president - Consulting Services at SmithBucklin, is an experienced association executive and consultant to nonprofit boards of directors. He is also the executive vice president of Battery Council International.

 

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NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2014 EDITION
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Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for more than 60 years.

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