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Why Boards Need Clarity
“Clarity of vision is the key to achieving your objectives,” said Tom Steyer, billionaire hedge fund manager and philanthropist. These words are particularly relevant to volunteer leaders who serve on association boards. But for board members, it goes beyond clarity of vision. It’s also about having clarity on roles, responsibilities, expectations, governance, the mission, policies, protocols, values, and all other aspects of board service.

In fact, clarity is considered one of the five most important attributes of high-functioning boards, according to David Schmahl, Executive Vice President and Chief Executive of the Healthcare + Scientific and Technology Industry Practices at SmithBucklin. He also notes that when volunteer leaders have clarity about what they’re doing and why, it fosters greater engagement and productivity.

What Creates a Lack of Clarity

For a variety of reasons, clarity is not always easy for boards to achieve. For example, by their very nature boards have a lot of turnover with members cycling on and off every few years. Therefore, there are more chances for new arrivals to not be clear about their roles and duties. Another contributing factor stems from the fact that volunteer board members are often separated geographically and tend to meet infrequently. It’s hard enough to get organizational clarity when everyone is in the same office, working together every day. Certainly, boards overcome these obstacles every day, but thought and attention is required because these and other factors can impede clarity, and that can lead to distractions that cause the board to deviate from meeting strategic goals.

Lack of clarity can manifest itself in any number of ways. It could lead to making an investment in a new program or initiative that does not serve the mission of the association. It may lead a board to make a decision to use reserves in a non-strategic way, like hiring an expensive speaker or entertainer for the annual conference that may boost the wow factor but doesn’t increase attendance. When there is lack of clarity about roles, the board may get involved in issues that are the purview of management, causing it to lose focus on strategy. Similarly, a lack of clarity on board protocols could result in a board member acting in an unauthorized manner.

When board members do not understand their role, aren’t crystal clear on policies, values, and the mission, and aren’t certain about what is expected of them, it may result in mediocre performance and frustration. That lack of clarity, in turn, could cause them to withdraw or disengage, which hampers productivity.

How to Achieve Clarity

Individual board members can gauge their own clarity by asking themselves a few simple questions. What is expected of me as a board (or team) member? How is what I’m contributing serving the mission? What are the goals and objectives of the organization and how can I support them during my tenure? Is this issue I am tackling or debating a staff or management issue, or is this a strategic-level issue that the board should handle? The answers to these questions will help guide the focus of board members.

For new board members, the onboarding process should facilitate a full understanding of their roles and responsibilities, as well as the organization’s mission, vision, bylaws, policies and procedures. Equally important are regular check-ins at the board level to ensure board members understand their collective role as a governing, not managerial, body, and that they can distinguish between the short-term needs of members and the sometimes competing long-term needs of the organization.

Another helpful tool is the RACI model, where an organization creates a document to outline who is responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed about specific decisions. Such a document can include the roles and responsibilities of the board, staff, committees, task forces, and other contributors. The discussions required to create such a document are a great way to create clarity. Regardless of the tools and techniques, obtaining and maintaining clarity must be an important part of the yearly board agenda.

The American Evaluation Association (AEA), which had challenges with role clarity within the organization several years ago, documents the roles and expectations of board members in its policy manuals. “AEA has structures in place to make it very clear what is expected,” explained Anisha Lewis, Executive Director of AEA. In its Governing Policies Manual, AEA spells out the expectations of directors individually, and as a group. Further, AEA’s strategic plan charts the specific responsibilities of the board and staff for each of its end goals. In addition, AEA also has a Board-Staff Relationship Policy that summarizes how volunteer leadership and management are expected to interact. “Clarity is so important because if people are unclear about their role, or about how their actions contribute to the objectives of the association, it can affect the entire organization,” said Lewis. “It’s critical for everyone to focus on their task at hand.”

Mission Impact

“It’s no surprise that people do their best work when they have clarity,” said Schmahl. When there’s clarity, board members are also more empowered because their specific responsibilities are clear. That creates a higher level of ownership and accountability, which leads to increased engagement and energy. And when success is achieved, board members feel more a part of that success because they played a key role contributing to something bigger. “When the board is focused and engaged, and the work is connected to something, you get mission impact,” explained Schmahl.

Achieving clarity is an issue that is all-encompassing, extremely critical and one that should not be overlooked. Along with board composition, board cohesiveness, embracing and working through conflict, and being conscious of board performance and effectiveness, clarity is a hallmark of a high-functioning board of directors.
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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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