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Governance: It’s Like Riding a Bicycle
By Mark O. Thorsby, CAE, Vice President, SmithBucklin

Association boards are comprised of individuals who are successful in their respective fields and display an aptitude for solving problems, so naturally they apply these skills and their professional experience to do what they think is best for the association. Difficulty sometimes arises, however, when board members focus on processes when they would serve their association better by focusing on outcomes. For this reason, role clarity is a critical issue for the governing boards of associations.

To help boards govern as effectively as possible, I like to use the analogy of a bicycle to clarify the governance-related activities distinct to board members and the management-related activities distinct to staff. As we all know, a bicycle has two wheels, both of which are required to perform if the bicycle is to operate properly.

Front Wheel

The front wheel of a bicycle is responsible for steering it and determining its direction. In the context of an association, this is the role of the governing board. The board provides the association’s vision, allocates resources, monitors progress, and makes necessary course corrections.

Back Wheel

The back wheel of a bicycle is responsible for providing the needed power to reach the destination that the front wheel is steering toward. For an association, this is the role of the staff and volunteers. They put strategic plans into action, and use leading practices and proven processes to propel the association forward. As such, they provide the person-power and tactical assistance to execute the board’s plan.

Specific and clear direction combined with flawless execution — a combination of a great front and back wheel working together — makes for a successful association. For example, if the board establishes a goal “to increase the ‘wow factor’ of the annual convention,” that direction is too vague for staff to act upon. Instead, the board needs to establish goals for the association that are specific and clearly define what is to be accomplished. In this case, the board would clarify what it means by “wow factor” and how the successful achievement of the goal should be measured.

The Bicycle Analogy in Action

The American Association of Legal Nurse Consultants (AALNC) used this approach to redefine its membership value proposition. First, the board determined that the association’s core membership was comprised of experienced legal nurse consultants. Under the board’s guidance, the membership committee and staff were responsible for establishing the best process to understand the needs of these members. It was decided that focus groups would be utilized. The membership committee and staff planned and conducted the focus groups, selected the focus group facilitator, analyzed the outcomes and — based on the results — made a series of recommendations to the board for revisions to the AALNC member value proposition.

The front wheel established the direction — revise the AALNC member value proposition. The back wheel developed and executed a plan — gathering the data necessary to make the revisions. The front wheel did not need to do the work of the back wheel or even tell the back wheel how to do it. The roles were clearly defined.

Another example can be found with the board of the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC), which — as part of its responsibilities — monitors and addresses healthcare trends related to genetic counseling. The NSGC board saw a noticeable increase in the number of consumers seeking information about genetic counseling online. The board decided that NSGC would make an effort to ensure the credibility and accuracy of online data by allocating additional financial, volunteer and staff resources.

The board then delegated accomplishing the goal to NSGC’s volunteers and staff. How these tasks were executed remained solely in the hands of the staff and volunteers. For example, the marketing and communications team generated a concept for a website that describes the experience of meeting with a genetic counselor for the first time. Volunteer members worked with the staff team to create content for the site drawn from their first-hand professional knowledge. Today, the website serves as a resource that physicians and counselors share with patients.

Don’t Be a Unicycle!

So what happens to the association bicycle if the board attempts to manage the process? You end up with a unicycle — one wheel trying to do it all. Have you ever tried to ride a unicycle? You don’t care where you go just as long as you don’t hurt yourself or anyone around you! Unicycles are not a successful means of transportation; just like a governing board doing the staff’s work does not lead to a successful association. Two wheels are better than one!

If the governing board is spending time on back wheel activities, it is being distracted from its primary purpose — setting direction. It is in these cases where we see associations very busy, but not very productive. The back wheel is spinning fast but the bicycle is not getting anywhere.

The responsibilities of an association’s board and its staff must be clear and concise. As a board member, adjusting your thinking to focus on front-wheel functions while trusting your staff and volunteers to power the back wheel will eliminate ambiguous ownership of projects and help your association be more productive and successful.


  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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JUNE 2016 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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