By Lyn McDonell
It was the moment to set the big question on the table.
Through the board evaluation project, the board had learned that it was “doing okay” with both strengths and weaknesses. We had conducted a peer feedback process, in which each individual received feedback. Some directors had learned that it had not gone unnoticed that they were unprepared for meetings, often leaving early for other business, and not participating fully. No one was terrible, but a few members were “checking out” and giving less than their full attention to the director role.
This was a member organization facing real disruptive forces. To survive and thrive, the association had to rethink its offerings and value proposition given new competition for the membership dollar. A tired suite of programs needed the renewal that comes with deep insight and smart thinking. The CEO was retiring, and within months a new leader would be taking charge.
So, I took a breath, and asked the question that was gripping me: “Given where your organization is today and facing the challenges of tomorrow, are you as a board and as individuals satisfied with your 60 per cent to 70 per cent performance? Is your level of performance good enough? Or will you (as individuals and together) close the gap and be a 100 per cent board, the best you can be?” By the nodding heads and thoughtful expressions, I could tell the question had hit home. Suddenly the action plan we had created coming out of the evaluation had new resonance.
Associations need to be led by 100 percent high-functioning boards to grapple with the forces in play externally. Not only should boards look at their governance processes and meeting dynamics, they should measure themselves against whether they can meet the challenges of their environments.
I am convinced that boards are agents of change. They are not the only agents of change. Strong CEO/Executive Directors can make a difference. However, boards are more powerful (or unintentionally disempowering or draining) than they know. Boards determine the ambition and breadth of vision, the culture, and expectations for performance. I have observed that the senior staffperson (even top performers) do better work reporting to better boards. A true association leader should yearn for a high quality board. He or she needs to be matched to excel.
Board members, raise the bar for yourselves, the staff, for the organization. Not every director has to have connections and influence, special know-how, insights into the big picture, or members’ trust and support, but the combination of all of you do. All board members must demonstrate will, courage and leadership over the next decade. Your ambition now to be a better board will make a difference.
Here’s a list of four practices that will move your governance forward:
- Get the right people on the board. There are ways of publicizing and recruiting for the role that can get the right mix of people around the table. These include a call for directors, wide networking, and information sessions for candidates and interviews. Make the position important.
- Ensure the board has powerful conversations and not just at the time of strategic planning. Use techniques to free time on the agenda to address questions that matter.
- Use contemporary tools to organize regular board work such as annotated agendas, briefing memos, motion logs, scorecards and risk heat maps. Directors want information presented in an intelligible way and need to see clear outcomes arising.
- Make time for stakeholders and partners to “get” their issues, know their environments, and find the green shoots of new ideas and directions. Use panels, task forces, special consultations, on members’ sites board meetings, “town-halls” and other means. When board members understand “what’s going on” and are exposed to the energy of stakeholders, they think differently and see directions of co-creation, innovation, and recovery from the doldrums.
The pathway to radically better governance has quite doable steps. When association boards take this route, board members find their positions more satisfying and meaningful and other leaders are attracted. Since mediocre won’t cut it in the next decade, and renewal and reinvention is much more exciting, strengthen your board now.
Lyn McDonell is hosting CSAE’s webinar, Boards getting it right: Ideas for improved governance practices, on April 29.
Lyn McDonell CAE, C. Dir. CMC is President of The Accountability Group, Inc. and a longtime member of CSAE. She is the Chair of CPA Canada's Not-for-Profit Committee of the Risk Oversight and Governance Board and serves on the board of Canada's largest urban community hospital, The Scarborough Hospital. She is a Chartered Director (2006 graduate), Certified Association Executive, and a Certified Management Consultant. Lyn works with boards and senior teams of-not-for-profit organizations across all sectors helping them advance governance and create viable strategies