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Principles of High-Functioning Teams
By Risa Mish, Senior Lecturer of Management at Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management

“A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, set of performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.”

— Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith, The Discipline of Teams

From generating new ideas to setting an organization’s agenda in its industry or profession, most work that an association board performs is in a group setting. Therefore, teamwork skills are mission-critical. While team-building is common practice in the business and corporate worlds, volunteer boards with an appreciation for the practices and principles that drive highly effective teams will benefit greatly.

The following are association-board-focused tenets that will guide the formation and progress of successful teams.

Common Purpose

At the heart of every successful team lies a shared commitment. In the absence of a commitment that the team members each and all “own,” groups perform as a collection of individuals, sometimes even acting at odds with one another. With common purpose, the team instead becomes a powerful, collective force.

Often when new members join a board, the purpose of the team is merely implied and assumed — “You are going to do X, Y and Z to carry out the mission of the organization.” The risk of this approach is that each individual board member may define X, Y and Z differently. If, on the other hand, boards were to spend time considering their own unique and important purpose, members would not only be able to reach agreement on the destination toward which they were working, but also be reminded of and inspired by why they are trying to get there.

Purpose answers the question, “Why does this team exist?” When members know the “why,” are inspired by it, and agree to shoulder collective responsibility for achieving it, the team’s power and effectiveness are magnified immeasurably.

Performance Goals

A set of corresponding goals or objectives helps the board define how it will measure progress toward achieving its common purpose. This can be as simple as: “The team will be successful if it achieves A, B and C.” Clear performance goals help a team define what success will look like, and hold itself accountable for achieving that success. For association boards, the act of assigning measurable objectives against a common purpose can help the board scope its work together and measure its own progress.

Complementary Skills

When boards consider the current skill mix on their team, they often think in terms of functional expertise — “our member who’s great at understanding the financials” or “our member who knows this segment of our industry particularly well.” This diversity of skills and perspective is, in fact, quite helpful. Of equal importance to the actual deliberations of the board team, however, is an appreciation for the much less obvious process-focused roles that effective teams are able to fulfill when problem-solving. It’s helpful to recognize which bucket you and other team members fall into, so you can consider whether your current team has any role gaps, and how you might go about addressing them so you personally can commit to bringing your special strengths to bear on the team’s work together:
  • Information gatherers are great initiators — they know how to frame an issue or problem and outline an approach for addressing a challenge;
  • Opinion gatherers excel at seeking clarification of different points of view, eliciting different perspectives and identifying information gaps;
  • Information givers provide technical skills or relevant expertise in a given area, or seek out the appropriate sources of information that will help solve a given problem;
  • Elaborators are skilled at taking someone else’s idea and offering additional examples, facts and analogies in order to help advance the discussion;
  • Collaborators have the ability to connect the dots between two or more varying opinions and act as harmonizers when conflict arises; and
  • Evaluators are those who suggest that the team stop and reevaluate the proposed solution against the original goals or purpose.
Having the right combination of personalities is an important indicator of a team’s efficiency, flexibility and success. At the same time, these roles also represent productive functions, or sequential process steps in effective decision-making. Board leaders should create a meeting environment in which members are able to bring this full range of process functionality to the team’s decision-making, and should encourage board members to take responsibility for contributing their unique strengths to the team’s work together.

Rules of Engagement

Successful teams take the time to establish and agree on certain operational procedures for how the group will function and how it will handle certain situations when they arise.

Things to consider include: How will the team make decisions? For an established association board, decision rules are typically outlined in the organization’s bylaws. But if not, the board must agree on a system. While many groups use a consensus process to seek the maximum possible levels of agreement, consensus may not be optimal for all types of decisions. Consider what kinds of decisions might be better-suited to majority or super-majority (e.g., two-thirds).

Then, how will the group handle conflicts? Will it bring someone in to help facilitate and bring the team to resolution if need be? And, how will the workload be distributed among board members so that it is fair and equitable? How will attendance be taken and addressed, if needed? What is the team’s viewpoint on confidentiality issues? In terms of discussion topics, are any off-limits, and if so, should they be?

Determining at the outset how the board will handle such matters makes it easier to hit the reset button when the team gets bogged down. It’s good to agree as early as possible that the group might have to, at some point, say, “We’re having a problem here. Let’s revisit our purpose, objectives and behaviors, and get things back on track.”

Mutual Accountability

Being part of a team demands a “being in the boat together” mentality. Mutual accountability is a natural extension of the common purpose and performance objectives that a given team has set forth, but implies that the entire group takes responsibility for success or failure. Mutual accountability also yields mutual accomplishment — as boards define even simple objectives for themselves and meet them along the way, a greater sense of satisfaction and deeper level of engagement result.


Booker T. Washington said, “Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility on him and tell him you trust him.” That sentiment likely underscores your board involvement in the first place. Someone already trusts you and has placed a very important responsibility in your hands. And when any team or board spends time together, gets to know each other and works toward a common objective, shared trust and commitment take root. For the high-functioning team, trust evolves as purpose and goals are shared and embraced, constructive conflicts arise and are resolved by the process to which the board has agreed, and objectives are achieved and celebrated together.

Effective teams also recognize that they have greater impact working collectively than they would achieve merely by aggregating individual contributions. How boards function and interact obviously has a direct bearing on the organizations they serve, and there is a great deal that can be learned by looking at the practices and resulting attributes of high-functioning teams. Boards that do so can not only set themselves on a course for great success on behalf of their organizations, but also stand to enjoy new levels of personal growth and fulfillment in their volunteer efforts.

  Risa Mish is senior lecturer of management at Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, where she is an award-winning teacher of courses in team leadership, critical thinking and problem solving. She is also Principal of a human capital and leadership consulting practice, providing advice and training to corporations, associations and senior executives, and has served as keynote speaker, trainer and panelist at association conferences, corporate meetings and educational workshops.

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