Designing the Director Experience
There is a growing recognition of the value of the stakeholder’s experience across many sectors of the economy. It’s called the user experience in technology, the customer experience in business, and the patient experience in healthcare. Even among associations, there is the member experience. So why not work to create a better experience for the association’s board of directors?
It’s the question that Jeff De Cagna FRSA FASAE, executive advisor for Foresight First LLC, is asking. He believes a more meaningful and enriching experience for board directors will have the dual effect of strengthening overall board performance and better preparing their associations to thrive. De Cagna suggests some key elements that should be considered in designing a robust director experience.

Intentional Learning
In this age of transformation, the technological, cultural, demographic, economic, and other shifts that are reshaping entire industries and professions will only become more intense as we move into the third decade of the 21st Century next year, says De Cagna, author of the eBook, Foresight is the Future of Governing. “This reality demands more learning from all of us, not less, and that's going to be the differentiator between those who are able to thrive and those who will find themselves stagnating,” De Cagna says.
This stark reality certainly includes association boards. While most boards are composed of highly capable people, that does not mean board members do not have more to learn. In fact, says De Cagna, the foundation of designing and creating a robust director experience is a shared commitment to intentional learning. It is the lifeblood of high-performing boards and can be incorporated in a variety of ways. “In my view, the learning that boards should be doing should focus on trying to better understand, anticipate, and prepare associations and their stakeholders for the future,” says De Cagna. “But regardless of the specific focus, we must embrace the idea that joining an association board is just the beginning of learning, not the end of it.”

Embracing intentional learning can help boards shift their approach toward the design of practices that will serve their associations well as they move through this age of transformation. With this in mind, De Cagna makes a clear distinction between best practices and next practices, with a focus on the latter. “Best practices are an attempt to look at the best possible version of what associations already have without questioning whether we should be doing it that way at all,” says De Cagna. “Instead of simply optimizing what we’ve already done, we must design and implement next practices — future-ready ways of doing business that reflect the work boards will need to do to be successful going forward.”

Building Resilience and Responsibility
In the context of transformation, and with learning as the foundation, it is critical to build board resilience through the director experience. This process begins with making a clear and strong connection between the motivations that directors bring to their service and the expectations of their roles. When director expectations and roles are unclear (e.g., failing to grasp how the work of staff and committees relates to and is different from board work) it can undermine board resilience. “There can be disconnect that will lead some directors to say, ‘This is not what I signed up for,’” says De Cagna, which is a highly detrimental way of thinking that can create confusion, limit the ability of directors to contribute, and weaken the board’s overall team dynamic.
A critical next practice for building resilience that association boards should adopt is rethinking the very nature of orientation. Providing directors with key information at the beginning of their board service is necessary, but it is not the kind of orientation they need to prepare themselves for the future. “Designing a robust director experience means that orientation is not a one-off event for new people,” says De Cagna. “Association boards should think of orientation in a similar way to how pilots think about it: constantly orienting and reorienting to the environment around them.” According to De Cagna, board orientation should be a continuous process through which directors build an empathic understanding of their diverse perspectives on key questions, learn together to introduce productive intellectual friction into their conversations, and collaborate to develop a shared sense of responsibility for stewardship.

Evaluating Board Performance
Board high performance is a critical factor in the overall success — or lack thereof — of an association, so it’s important to have a way to evaluate that performance over time. SmithBucklin has embraced this concept through its association excellence program, SmithBucklin AXPSM. It is a methodology and powerful set of tools designed to support boards and executive directors in regular, meaningful, and focused conversations about priorities, progress, and opportunities for improvement. De Cagna is a strong supporter of such initiatives and an advocate for frequent and real-time (or near real-time) board evaluation. “In most associations, it’s a once-a-year evaluation and that’s not anywhere near enough.” He believes there should be a mechanism to gather feedback and assess performance after every meeting of the board, whether online, over the phone, or face-to-face.

“A next practice I’m working on is something I call the TLH metric, which stands for Thoughtful, Learnful, Helpful,” says De Cagna. At the end of every meeting, directors would be asked to evaluate their peers on how thoughtful they were in conversation, how they demonstrated a commitment to intentional learning, and how they helped and supported their colleagues. This is just one example of an instant feedback metric, but certainly others could be developed and implemented by an association. “The idea is to evaluate the performance of individual directors, and the board as a whole, on a continuous basis so that you can determine the issues and challenges that must be addressed as soon as possible. How do you take solid performance to good? How do you take good performance to high performance?” De Cagna says. Helping directors strengthen both their individual and collective performance will make the overall experience of board service more fulfilling for everyone involved, and more beneficial for their associations.
The stakes of board service are high, as boards can have a significant impact on the various industries and professions their associations serve. Directors must embrace performing at the highest possible level, and by designing a robust director experience that maximizes performance, De Cagna says, both individual directors and the collective boards will benefit. “That's really what we need to achieve,” says De Cagna. “Associations must strive for interdependent performance, which is a shared mindset that enables each director to recognize how their individual performance affects the performance of every other director and challenges everyone to perform at the highest level as the only way to elevate the entire board. Designing an integrated and compelling director experience is a next practice associations can adopt to make that happen.”
Jeff De Cagna can be reached at, on LinkedIn or on Twitter. His forthcoming book, Foresight is The Future of Governing: Designing the Next Work of 21st-Century Association Boards, will be published by ASAE Association Management Press in January 2020.
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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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