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Governance Culture Statements Help Shape and Focus Boards
For an association to be successful and provide maximum value to its members, developing a decisive and aspirational culture within its board of directors is key. This is easier said than done, of course, when there are a variety of personalities and leadership styles in play.

One way to achieve this is to create a governance culture statement. Similar to a culture statement for an organization, a governance culture statement articulates the shared beliefs, values and attitudes of an association’s board of directors.

“Governance culture statements are becoming an increasingly common leading practice at organizations — both companies and associations,” said Caryn Taylor Lucia, board member and incoming 2016 chair of Financial & Insurance Conference Planners (FICP). “Such a statement can define a clear framework for what is expected from board members, as well as provide a source of inspiration. By seeing these shared ideals in the culture statement, board members begin to fully understand the magnitude of their role, instilling a renewed passion.”

FICP created and implemented its governance culture statement in early 2015. By collaborating with an external facilitator, an expert in association governance and culture, the board was able to define and articulate the values, beliefs and qualities that accurately represent the board and what it hopes to be.

“The entire board agreed that it was valuable to come together and develop a stronger identity of the board,” Taylor Lucia said. “We wanted to clearly define who we are and what we are about.”

A Guide for Success

A governance culture statement is also a valuable reminder to board members of the important roles they hold. “With everyone so busy with their full-time jobs and personal lives, it can be easy to forget the reasons why we are here,” Taylor Lucia said. “When used consistently at board meetings, it also has the power to energize board members through aspirational yet realistic expectations.” As articulated through its governance culture statement, FICP’s expectations include seeking and valuing collaboration, using strategic thinking to make decisions, nurturing an atmosphere of transparency and being passionately engaged while serving on the board.

Another significant way a governance culture statement can make an impact is by creating accountability within the board. And if conflict arises at a board meeting, a governance culture statement can serve as a guide to what specific behaviors and actions to use in order to find resolution.

A governance culture statement also serves as a best practices guide for succession planning. Like all associations, FICP is tasked with bringing new people onto the board as well as finding the right people for the right positions, Taylor Lucia explained. While board openings are often filled out of a sense of urgency, FICP’s governance culture statement emphasizes the board’s commitment to finding the right people, even if it takes more time.

“Our statement lays out a process that helps ensure that we don’t invite the wrong people onto the board,” Taylor Lucia said. “If board members think a candidate is not a cultural fit, they have an obligation to speak up.”

How to Create a Governance Culture Statement

To start the governance culture statement creation process, FICP board members responded to a questionnaire to help identify success factors for board members. Examples included “passionate,” “strategic,” “ethical” and “trustworthy.” Each board member selected five success factors, and FICP’s executive director compiled a bulleted list of common keywords to share at the 2014 FICP board retreat.

“We wanted to learn the consensus of the board — what they believe makes them successful. A governance culture statement should include the attributes that the board believes contributes most to their success,” Taylor Lucia noted.

During the retreat, which was held at an artsy Chicago studio space complete with couches and white boards, the board split up into small groups where everyone brainstormed keywords that reflected the board’s current culture.

Following the small group sessions, the board regrouped with a third-party facilitator to examine the keywords and create five to 10 sentences that would serve as the framework for the governance culture statement.

“The process of creating the statement was also a valuable activity because we learned a lot about each other,” Taylor Lucia said. “We recognized each of us has differences in perspectives and personal styles, but from a big-picture perspective, we have so many common values and beliefs, and one of them is our commitment to the association.”

Considerations

While no set blueprint exists for creating and implementing an effective governance culture statement, Taylor Lucia recommended a few considerations based on her experience with FICP:
  • Keep it realistic. A governance culture statement should be inspirational, realistic and easily implemented. For example, FICP’s statement includes attainable, action-oriented statements, such as “challenge ourselves and the organization to take calculated risks” and “demonstrate unbiased integrity in all actions and decisions.”
  • Consider a third-party facilitator. To ensure a successful brainstorming session, Taylor Lucia recommended using an unbiased third-party facilitator. “Look for a professional who is skilled at bringing out ideas within groups, preferably someone who is familiar with associations and board processes,” she said. “A strong facilitator will find ways to bring out the opinions of every member of the group.”
  • Timing is everything. Taylor Lucia said she would not encourage a board experiencing challenges, such as multiple resignations or internal tensions, to participate in this exercise. “The board needs to ask itself, ‘is the culture that exists now the right culture?’ If the answer is ‘no,’ it might not be the best time to start this process,” she said. But since no culture is perfect, keep in mind that aspects of the creation process are aspirational in nature.
  • Review and refine. As the board and association continue to evolve, consider reviewing the governance culture statement. This will also bring the perspectives of new board members into play. “It should be a living document and open for review each year,” Taylor Lucia said. “Because boards change over time, I would expect in five years there might be a different view on the culture.”
  • Keep it front and center. According to Taylor Lucia, the statement should be listed prominently and consistently in board materials and acknowledged at the start or conclusion of each meeting. “At FICP, we started off by including the statement in board materials, ensuring it is front and center in board members’ minds,” she said. Other ways to maximize the statement’s effectiveness include adding it to board member orientation materials, posting it to the association website or publishing it in annual reports. “This often holds a board to a higher level of accountability because now it’s out in the public for everyone to see,” she said.
Taylor Lucia says that a governance culture statement is essential to position an association for long-term success. “While everyone is serving on the board for different reasons, the ultimate goal is to advance the association’s mission and give back to the profession,” she said. “A governance culture statement helps make that happen.”
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SEPTEMBER 2015 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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