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Is Your Board the Right Size?
Earlier this year, the Clinical Laboratory Management Association (CLMA) appointed a governance task force to examine how the association is functioning. One of its charges was to look at the size of the board. Was it the right size for maximum efficiency? Initially, the task force wondered if the 12-member board needed to be smaller. After all, there has been a movement in recent years toward smaller boards. But CLMA arrived at a conclusion that was different from its initial assumptions — for them, smaller was not necessarily better.

Conversely, the Association for Nursing Professional Development (ANPD) conducted a review of its board size and, for reasons very specific to the organization, decided to reduce the number of seats. Clearly, there is no standard size for a board. The right size — and the rationale — is different for every association.

The Right People

For CLMA, board size was secondary to a more pressing concern. “It came down to making sure that we’re focusing on getting the right people in the right position at the right time,” said Abigail Lynn, executive director of CLMA. What the task force wanted to know was: Do we have the right skill sets to carry out the strategic plan? Do we have a wide enough demographic that represents the different lab sizes in the industry? Do we have people that are industry influencers?

Consequently, the task force realized that the nominations process needed to be overhauled. At the time, prospective board members nominated themselves and their candidacy was voted on by the membership. “Board members were selected based on the strength of their nomination statements and biographies versus the board giving a charge to the nominations committee to find the best qualified people,” said Lynn.

Now, the nominations committee seeks out a slate of candidates that represents the various demographics and skill sets the board needs. After all, the board knows where the gaps lie and what is needed to carry out the strategic goals of the organization. CLMA’s philosophy is, the position should seek the person as opposed to the person seeking the position. “It’s up to us to find those qualified people,” Lynn said.

With the nominations process settled, the task force returned to the question of board size. The task force recognized that to represent the demographics, competencies and stakeholders from various labs across the country, the 12-member board indeed made sense. In addition, explained Lynn, it wanted to have seats for industry influencers —experts who could offer other perspectives.

While CLMA made no changes to its board size, it did make the bold decision in March of 2017 to disband its executive committee and engage only when necessary. The association found that a more engaged full board made an executive committee unnecessary. Previously, the executive committee had 90-minute biweekly calls, while the full board convened over the phone quarterly, with a face-to-face meeting once a year. Now, to ensure that the full board remains engaged, it meets regularly by phone and twice a year in person.

Going Smaller

ANPD made the decision a few years ago to reduce the size of its board from 10 to seven. That move resulted from a comprehensive review of the organization, through which the board found that it was doing too much operational and not enough strategic work, explained Kaye Englebrecht, executive director of ANPD.

Board members were serving on a lot of committees and performing tasks that it realized should be handled by staff. When the board made the decision to delegate those tasks to staff, it freed up more time to concentrate on strategic issues. It also realized that the reason the board was 10 members was because it needed the extra members to carry out tasks that they shouldn’t be doing anyway. The three positions were reduced by attrition over the course of a few years when terms ended, Englebrecht said.

The board also felt that, while providing the necessary representation across the industry, the smaller board made them more focused, nimble and decisive. “The biggest improvement with the smaller group is an enhanced ability to execute and make quick decisions,” she said.

A Downsizing Trend

Over the years there’s been a gradual trend toward smaller boards. According to BoardSource, the average board size for multistate, national, and international boards has gone from 15 in 1994 to approximately 13 today. When determining how many seats to have on a board, association leadership must consider a variety of factors, including demographics (i.e., age, sex and race), geographic diversity, and representation from the various stakeholder types, explained Mark Thorsby CAE, who serves as the executive vice president of the Battery Council International. “You want a group of people with as diverse perspectives on an industry or profession as you can possibly get,” he said.

Another factor is the age of the association. The younger the association, the larger the board typically is. “People want to support what they helped to create,” said Thorsby. “And, in a startup situation, you may need a lot of support because you typically don’t have a lot of staff and are mostly volunteer-managed.” As the association ages, the size of the board typically shrinks.

Generally, the smaller the group, the faster and more decisively it can act. But how do you know when your board is too small? One, you find it is susceptible to groupthink, said Thorsby. Also, a board that’s too small may have a tough time making change. “That’s when you need someone to shake things up. With more people on the board you have a greater likelihood of somebody being a non-status quo person,” said Thorsby.

A symptom of a board that is too large is the inability to come to consensus around issues. That’s when it may be too unwieldy to be effective. What’s the sweet spot? “We typically recommend nine to 16 as the ideal size,” said Thorsby. “But again, it depends on the circumstances surrounding each individual board.”

Finally, Thorsby said it makes no difference if it’s an odd or even number. Some groups like to have an odd number to avoid stalemates, but Thorsby said that if you are looking to break ties, then that’s a symptom of a larger problem. An even or odd number shouldn’t matter. “You want overwhelming support for whatever the position is,” he said. “If you’re breaking ties, you probably need more discussion to achieve greater consensus.”
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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 70 years.


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