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September 5, 2012

A Different Leadership Lesson From Navy SEALs

I recognize that there's an inherent risk in comparing associations to military operations, especially in the midst of a heated campaign season. But an article in the Daily Beast yesterday got me thinking about something. Hang with me for a paragraph or two.

Today marks the publication of No Easy Day, a memoir by Matt Bissonnette, a former Navy SEAL who participated in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Bissonette is publishing the book under a pseudonym, Mark Owen, but his real name went public not long after the book was announced, and the very existence of the book has prompted some ugly public retorts among the onetime close-knit ranks. Earlier this week the Daily Beast reported on an e-book in which special-ops veterans criticize the publication of No Easy Day and speculate on the author's motives: "'Bissonnette was treated very poorly upon his departure ... once he openly shared that he was considering getting out of the Navy to pursue other interests,' [they write]. "Bissonnette was essentially given a plane ticket back to Virginia and nothing else--not much of a thank-you for his 'honesty and 14 years of service.'"

I admit to being a bit surprised, reading about all this. If the most fearsome, best-trained fighting force in the military---a no-nonsense, get-it-done unit adhering to the highest possible standards---can't set aside its squabbling, what hope is there for our staffs? Our boards?

The analogy is imperfect, I know: Navy SEALs operate in life-and-death situations that few can fathom, and the necessity for secrecy there is much more pronounced. But something very familiar and human also seems to be going on here: People are brought into a privileged group with at best a limited amount of forethought about what might happen when people leave. "Members of the Special Operations community are well known for eating their own," the e-book authors say. That mindset is designed to solidify ranks, but it fails when somebody is motivated, for whatever reason---a less stressful job, a lucrative book contract---to break from them.

In the same way that smart organizations think about the right way to sunset programs and products, some deliberate care seems essential when we consider the end of a board member's tenure; a toast at one last breakfast and a chance to walk the stage one more time at the annual conference may not enough if they're not attached to feelings of respect and accomplishment. Proper closure requires working with board leaders months before their term ends to find out how they felt about their service---and, if those feelings aren't entirely positive, what can be done in the time remaining to improve it. Not doing it risks lingering resentment---and, at its worst, public disagreement that can harm how your organization is perceived.

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August 12, 2012

What's the Right Way to Disagree?

rovecarville.jpg
"Baloney!"

"You don't get to choose your own facts!"

"BS!"

Is this any way to have a conversation about issues?

Perhaps a better question: Is this the only way two people who disagree can have a public conversation?

I went into this morning's Opening General Session at ASAE's 2012 Annual Meeting & Expo figuring that political strategists James Carville and Karl Rove would provide some useful blog fodder---lessons that association leaders could take from their insights, or some such. I had good reasons for high expectations: My colleague Kristin Clarke and I were both able to draw some relevant insights from the two for the August issue of Associations Now. They're smart leaders with strong opinions.

Even so, the two didn't make my job easy today. Their discussion was mainly an hourlong session in which they traded jabs on welfare, the budget gap, Medicare, education, and so on. A culture of disagreement about issues is what makes America great, I know, but I didn't always feel like I heard a great conversation. (To her credit, moderator Michelle Bernard did a fine job of encouraging the two to focus on issues related to underprivileged Americans and race relations---essentially to make their discussion less abstracted.)

So if there are lessons that association leaders can draw from today's General Session, I can think of two.

1. We can talk about how small a board should be, but obviously it shouldn't be as small as two people.

2. More seriously, how we choose to disagree matters, and expressing our disagreement in a useful way demands mindful attention. Maybe you weren't a fan of the way Carville dismissed Rove's data points with a wisecrack; maybe you thought Rove cherry-picked his data in a way that neglected the big picture. But that's an instinct that's common to all of us. If we're honest, a lot of us say "BS!" in our heads during a board meeting when we hear something we disagree with. And we may be, shall we say, selective about what research we emphasize when selling our ideas. There's a lot of theatrical disagreement that goes on in our heads before we get into the messy details of disagreement. Assuming we ever do.

This may be an aspect of staff and board work that doesn't get discussed enough: How to disagree in ways that move a conversation forward, instead of just proving how dug into our positions we are. That requires some nuance and hard work: Disagreement can sow hurt feelings, defensiveness, and divisiveness. But done right, it can be productive. I'm not sure I know the right way to do it, but I suspect it doesn't involve "BS!" and "baloney!"

What did you think of this morning's conversation? What lessons did you take from it?

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August 3, 2012

The gray area of transparency

Social media can make an association board meeting messy. Just ask the board of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. Debate is stirring in journalism circles online over its decision to ban the live tweeting of its board meeting.

Here's the quandry: It wasn't a board member tweeting, nor was it a reporter from an external news organization. It was a student reporter for UNITY News, the in-house news operation for the UNITY 2012 Conference, which brings together an alliance of identity-specific journalism associations and is where the board meeting was being held.

I don't know if the reporter was technically a member of NAHJ, but let's assume she was. How does an association board properly handle the challenge of live media at its meetings?

For board members: Regarding board members themselves, I've written here before that I think the answer is education about what must remain confidential and about how and why live tweeting can interfere with effective board decision making. (At the very least, a tweeting board member is a distracted board member.) But I'd stop short of an outright ban.

For outside press: In the case of reporters from outside publications, the answer is simple, as an association (generally) doesn't have an obligation to open its affairs to the public. Tell them they can read the press release.

For at-large members: But it's the area in between that's gray, when an at-large member wants to attend a board meeting and communicate proceedings to members in real time. At-large members have a legitimate claim to be made aware of their association's governance proceedings, but an association board has a legitimate need to conduct its meetings in an environment that enables candid discussion and debate.

As Baltimore Sun editor John McIntyre pointed out, "The reason to have a board is to select representatives to discuss and agree on policy in a way that would be too time-consuming and inefficient in a plenary of the membership. Minute-by-minute reporting would tend to turn a board meeting into something like a plenary."

That's an argument that probably makes a lot of sense to an association executive or anyone who, like John, has served on a nonprofit board, but it likely won't resonate with members rallying in the name of transparency. A decision to close the doors or ban media should not be taken lightly.

Those of you out there who have faced this situation at your associations: How have you handled it? Where is the line drawn? How do you strike a balance between transparency and effective board business?

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July 25, 2012

The 40-Year Lesson: Insights from a Retiring Association CEO

Caught in a deadline jam for Associations Now after a snafu that meant pulling several short articles, I was lucky enough to earn the sympathy and help of one of the great leadership icons of our community: CEO & President J. Clarke Price of the Ohio Society of CPAs.

Price is actually leaving us all after 40 years of service. He gave notice two years ago and will head out of the office in December to hopefully tee off on the golf courses of Hawaii and elsewhere, then delve into favorite cause-related activities. I had to cut a bunch of Clarke's comments because of space limitations in the magazine, so I want instead to share them here as advice and insights from one of our most admired colleagues.

1. Association CEOs must stop complaining about time pressures and embrace the huge responsibility they bear for the success of their association's social media strategy. "Social media is one of the differentiators today," says Clarke, who has been called a "Technology Superstar" by one of his industry's trade publications. "Too many CEOs--and occasionally myself included--dismiss social media by rationalizing 'I don't have time for that' when we really do need to be spending time in the social media universe. Whether it's blogging, Facebook, Twitter, or any of the social platforms, the CEO needs to be vocal as one of the loudest and clearest voices of the association and the profession or industry. I'm critical of myself, because I don't spend enough time being part of the social atmosphere."

2. Being an early adopter of technology tools and applications is essential, too. "It's been fun moving from a two-way pager in the early days to the earliest Blackberry to the Palm Treo to the next gizmo iteration and then to the iPhone and iPad that I use today," Clarke says. "And I still carry an old Motorola Razor that I use just because I'm just more comfortable with that sort of phone, and the battery life is great."

3. In the big, long scheme of things, people mean the most. "As a career accomplishment, being featured in ASAE's 7 Measures [of Success] book was a pretty big deal for the organization and me. But I'm proudest when I think about the people I've hired, some who are still here and some who've moved on to bigger roles in other associations and industries or professions," he says.

4. You never forget some of your earliest CEO mistakes--and what you learned from them. It's apparently a long story, but Clarke says one of his most memorable mistakes involved a simple proofreading gaff. "Proofread carefully," he warns. "... I was almost fired in 1975 because of a very sloppy proofreading job on a bylaws ballot sent to every member!"

5. Have leadership role models--a lot of them. "I don't have just one," Clarke says. "I've learned a lot from colleagues in other organizations (particularly the Ohio State Bar Association, Ohio State Medical Association, and Maryland Institute of CPAs)....[and] just observing and working with John Graham the year I was ASAE chair."

And finally--because who doesn't always want to know this when they talk one of the association world's wise elders--what's Clarke's favorite board management tip after 40 years in the trenches?

"Plan! Think through the likely avenues of discussion and be prepared for the unexpected."

I hope retirement brings you expected and unscripted joys, Clarke. Thanks again for sharing not only your thoughts with me but with so many of us over the years in the association community. I'd love to hear what others have to say about Clarke's tips and observations.

You also can wish him well and hear about the books and information sources that have influenced his past and current thinking as a leader if you join us for the education session "Conversations That Matter: What We Learn From What We Read" Tuesday morning, Aug. 14 in Dallas at our Annual Meeting & Expo. I'll be joining Clarke and another longtime industry leader, Gary LaBranche, to lead a rowdy, fun, and very practical (if last year's version is any indication) discussion of the books, blogs, Twitterstreams, and whatever other info sources (okay, the emphasis is often on books) that have jazzed your thinking in the past year. Leave room in your totebag for at least one free book from our giveaway table!

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May 2, 2012

Taking a Vacation on the Association's Dime, Eh?

In two morning sessions on the second day of ASAE's International Conference, at least one clear theme emerged: However much research an association does to find new markets around the world, there's likely going to be a skeptical/panicky/xenophobic board member who's ready to throw cold water on the effort.

Tony Keane, president and CEO of IFMA--International Facility Management Association, recalled an experience at a previous association where the board had signed on for an internationalization plan that would take three to five years to show ROI. Even so, one board member suffered a case of sticker shock at a meeting: "Why are you spending so money on travel expenses?" The board member was expressing the common and not-so-subtle suspicion was that staff wasn't really establishing important roots overseas, but gallivanting at the association's expense.

"You're going to get pushback," Keane says. "You have to be prepared for that."

But what to do? Here are three suggestions that emerged during the morning sessions.

1. Make it the board's initiative, not the CEOs. As with any new initiative that threatens to divide board members, support is better gained through board-member-to-board-member conversations. Champions of a new global plan on the board should consider it their role to persuade fellow board members who are on the fence or opposed to it. "We let [the board members] bring in the naysayers, instead of me going from one person to another," Keane says.

2. Make a clear, direct statement of your global focus, and have the board acknowledge it. At IFMA, Keane helped craft an international strategy with members of the board, former board members, staff, and an international development committee. Once it was created, it was distilled into a strategy statement---just a handful of lines that established the association's commitment to expand it's efforts internationally. The board approved the strategy statement---acknowledging its belief in the association's international mission, not just a particular initiative.

3. Build a board that shows how global you are. Rosa Aronson, CAE, executive director of TESOL International, pointed out that four members of the association's 12-person board are from outside the United States, in keeping with the 27 percent of members who are from outside the United States. "You want to be sure that your board is representative of your membership," she says. "It has some cost and cultural implications, but if you are a truly global association, it has to show up in your governance structure." Aronson added that you should make sure to check your bylaws during the process. Many associations were founded in an era when globalization was unacknowledged (or even actively resisted), so there may be residual language that effectively limits board participation to U.S. members.

How about you? What works when it comes to getting board buy-in for your globalization efforts?

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January 9, 2012

Reading between the lines on conflict and inclusion

The 2012 Associations Now Volunteer Leadership Issue includes a feature by Mark T. Engle, FASAE, CAE, titled "Balanced Conflict, Better Decisions," which presents research that Engle conducted on how associations can best handle conflict in decision making. One of Engle's key findings is that conflict is best handled at the committee level rather than at the board level, and I think this says a lot about the importance of creating open and inclusive governance models in associations, which we discussed here back in November.

[Engle's feature article isn't published online; see page 26 of your print edition. However, in October we published a short article based on an interview with Engle.]

In the feature, Engle stresses that the importance of the consensus approach at the association board level runs opposite to what other research says about decision making in for-profit boards, that conflict at the board level improves decision making. A quote from Steve Smith, CAE, executive director and CEO of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, sums this up well:

"Fairness and due diligence are critical within [association] committee or board processes," says Smith. "If a process is seen as unfair, such as when all views are not heard, the focus is likely to be on personal issues or affective conflict."

In other words, in the association context, if the decision-making process is un-inclusive, conflict will arise precisely for that reason.

The association model is such that, by the time a decision reaches the board level, a strong consensus should already exist about the decision to be made. All the various stakeholders should already be on board because they should have already been asked for their input. If they weren't asked, they'll question the decision. In many cases, I suspect, conflict might present itself as healthy debate on the merits of the issue but in truth be rooted in personal or political conflict stemming from a sense of unfairness in the process.

This presents a deeper question: Is the decision-making process more important than the decision itself? For associations and their member-driven governance systems, the answer might be yes. The evidence in Engle's research on conflict and decision making suggests this, and it makes yet another case for more openness and inclusion in decision-making in associations. If you haven't read the comments from that post from November, go back now and read them. They offer some good ideas for meeting this challenge.

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November 8, 2011

The pursuit of openness and inclusivity

In the past couple of weeks, I've been working with colleagues to set up a new discussion forum in relation to ASAE's upcoming Volunteer Leadership Retreat. The goal is expanding the number and diversity of viewpoints contributing toward organizational planning.

That's no easy task, and it's one that I think many associations struggle with. By now associations are (or should be) well aware of the business cases for improving diversity and inclusion and allowing for more open, transparent ways of doing business. It's clear that these are worthy goals to pursue. But a lot of the challenge comes in the execution. Even if you're highly motivated, it turns out being more open and inclusive isn't necessarily easy.

Often, the argument goes that closed organizational structures come from those in power clinging to their power and control. In many cases, this may be true, but I don't think it fully explains the existence of closed systems. In the article that Jamie Notter wrote for Associations Now last month based on his and Maddie Grant's book Humanize, he did a nice job explaining another major cause (and staying power) of closed systems: they're incredibly efficient.

Thus, moving toward more openness and inclusivity in group action or decision making comes at the price of efficiency, and that's often enough to stop such efforts cold. The traditional model of decision making just doesn't scale upward very well. Three people can come to a decision fairly easily, but 30 people would take much longer, let alone 300 or 3,000.

In my mind, a more open organizational model can still have levels, but the levels must become flatter and wider—i.e., more people must be allowed to be involved in meaningful ways closer to the point where actual decisions are made. And hierarchy is still OK, too, but the flow of information up and down the levels must be freer. Designing a system that can do these effectively and efficiently is, again, not easy, but as Jamie and Maddie and others argue, technology and social media are making it more achievable (as well as more imperative).

I'm curious how other associations have tried to tackle this challenge. What methods have or haven't worked for you in trying to make your association's governance and planning processes more open and inclusive? If you've had any luck (or hard lessons learned), please share.

[Also, if you're interested in contributing your viewpoints on ASAE's strategic framework, please join the discussion at http://collaborate.asaecenter.org/leadASAE.]

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October 26, 2011

Would your annual report ever sound like this?

My RSS feed from Wired magazine doesn't typically bear much relation to association management, but Maryn McKenna's summary of the latest report from the Independent Monitoring Board of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative caught my eye: "Scathing Report: Polio Eradication 'Not... Any Time Soon'."

Maryn writes that the report "is striking for its brutally frank and even frustrated tone." She later writes that the report "identifies problems that extend throughout the worldwide effort. The board is strikingly candid in asking pointed questions about them."

The nature of the report isn't exactly parallel to an association annual report, but I couldn't help but compare them. The truth, though, is they don't really compare at all. The association annual reports I've seen have typically been positive, light on genuine analysis, and rather dull. Anything but brutally frank.

This disparity could be a byproduct of vague missions and goals. Clearly, eradicating polio is a "big, hairy audacious goal." Bigger goal equals more room for failure, which an honest report will identify. But a vague goal, like "advancing the industry," means there's more room to be just as vague in assessing results.

The disparity could also result from who writes the report. In the case of the polio initiative, the report was written by an independent board convened specifically "to monitor and guide the progress" of initiative's strategic plan. In the case of most associations, an annual report is assembled by staff, possibly with involvement or sign-off of the board—two parties with a clear bias toward highlighting an association's success and downplaying its shortfalls. Perhaps a committee of at-large members tasked with authoring an annual report would offer more honest analysis.

Of course, the actual substance of the polio initiative report is disappointing, from a global-health perspective. But sugarcoating the lack of progress toward the initiative's goal would have been a disservice to the people dedicating their energy toward eradicating the disease and to those who still suffer from it. The report's honesty is exactly the kind of kick in the pants that can motivate people to fix problems, and it's exactly the kind of analysis that has to take place when measuring progress toward a mission, whatever it may be.

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September 23, 2011

Someone to tell you you're crazy

We all live in bubbles, little worlds unto ourselves that we create so we can manage our lives with some sense of sanity. But if we stay in those bubbles for too long or if we don't let others in, they become echo chambers, where all we hear is whatever we tell ourselves. This goes for people and for organizations.

This came to mind after I read Jamie Notter's blog post on Monday about competing narratives, as well as Joe Gerstandt's post (that Jamie linked to) about the intersections of those competing narratives.

Since the ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo last month, I've been wanting to revisit a bold statement from closing general session speaker Peter Sheahan. I'm paraphrasing because I didn't take down his exact quote, but here it is:

The association governance model means associations are forced into meeting the needs of legacy members and not the needs that arise in the future. The system is built not to change.

That's a competing narrative for associations if there ever was one. And Sheahan knew this; he prefaced this idea half-jokingly with "You might not want to bring me back after I say this."

What attendees seemed to love about Sheahan's presentation was that he had clearly spent some time studying associations. And after a little studying, he gave his outsider's viewpoints, one of which (the above) equated to "what you're doing here seems a little crazy."

We all need that viewpoint once in a while. We need someone to tell us we're doing something that doesn't make sense. Otherwise, we'll remain blind to it. As Joe G. so eloquently put it, "At the point where two or more competing narratives interface, collide, merge, mesh or dance lives tremendous potential."

Association executives can seek out these intersections for their members, boards, and staff. Bring in a conference speaker from the outside who's willing to study your industry and question its practices. Invite visitors to your board meetings or to spend a day with your staff. As long as they're willing to be honest and ask questions, it doesn't matter who it is. A good consultant should give you an honest perspective. Or it could be John Doe off the street. Or it could be your mother, the one who still doesn't quite understand what you do, even though you've explained it a thousand times.

Sheahan said "someone has to agitate." He did it for us. He gave us a competing narrative. Now go find someone to do it for your association.

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July 14, 2011

Train more or expect less?

Two weeks ago, C. David Gammel, CAE, discussed the pros and cons of the annual cycle that most associations follow. A primary element of that cycle is the yearly turnover of volunteers and board members. Whether you view that as a positive or negative likely depends on your own experience.

Around the same time, The Chronicle of Philanthropy blogger Rick Moyers posed a question: "Do We Expect Too Much From Boards?" This was based on data from the "Daring to Lead 2011" report, which showed that just 20 percent of nonprofit executive directors said they were "very satisfied" with the performance of their boards of directors.

That's a pretty sad number, so Moyers' question is an appropriate one. Given a structure in which a nonprofit organization must be led by a group of volunteers with widely varying interests, motivations, and levels of skill or comfort in organizational leadership, perhaps it is indeed foolish to expect much.

So, as the association executive in that situation, you have two options:

  • Accept the ineffectiveness of the board, and lower your expectations accordingly.
  • Train the board with the skills needed in order for it to meet your expectations.

Judith Lindenau shared a story on her Off Stage blog recently about a grantmaking foundation that requires its beneficiary organizations to display skill in leadership and execution—or go through training to develop it—before receiving a dollar. The foundation wants to see its grants spent well, of course, but, as Judith notes, it is also a reflection of the its belief that effective leadership comes first.

"The interesting part of this solution … is that the foundation's process begins with a trained leadership and staff—not with the money or the strategic plan," she writes.

In other words, if you don't have your proverbial ducks in a row, don't bother with anything else.

I think that applies to this question of board expectations. If you don't make board training (and perhaps structure) your first priority, then of course your high expectations won't be met.

I'm no executive though, so I'm sure I'm oversimplifying. What's the nuance here? Why else is the mismatch between expecations and reality for association board performance so persistent?

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July 12, 2011

Looking beyond the board for leadership

Time for more insights from a content leader at the upcoming 2011 ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo. Today, we've reached out to Jeff Beachum, CAE, executive director at the Interior Design Educators Council, Inc., who will lead an Annual Meeting Learning Lab titled "Love our Mission: Moving from Board-Centric to Extended Reach!" Jeff shares an interesting story about managing significant change at IDEC.

How did you get your board to buy in to a new structure and culture that focused on discovering leaders outside the traditional pipeline?

Beachum: About five years ago, the Interior Design Educators Council, Inc., began to see significant growth. In just five years, we have experienced an 80-plus percent growth of members, with more than 50 percent of our membership having been a part of the organization for five years or less and another 35 percent expected to retire within the next 10 years. The combination of healthy growth and the clamoring needs of an expectant membership was creating tension on several pressure points within the organization.

IDEC has survived for more than 40 years with a board-centric organizational flow, resembling a "good old boys" network. Everyone in the organization felt compelled to connect with the president and the board. Real pain kicked in when the membership surpassed 400. It was common for board members to feel significant relief when their term ended.

So, recognizing the trail of bloodied board members left in the wake of their service, the leadership began serious work: an already-strong mission statement was restated and simplified, and a new organizational structure was subsequently birthed that included almost all of the activities previously established but within new "organizational homes."

By the time we arrived at this point in the reorganization discussion, an inordinate amount of receptivity to the vision was being celebrated. Leaders were now willing to engage in a bit more risk, and the process was becoming a challenging adventure. Success was begetting success. Challenge to change was greeted with anticipation, and courage came easier.

The board quickly recognized that the traditional pipeline of leadership was woefully inadequate. There were not enough "good old boys" to fill the new roles. In fact, the reorganization required leadership to think and lead differently, and some of the membership would not be able to make the mental transition as leaders. The board began to embrace new initiatives and policies that would allow for the discovery of new, innovative, and emerging leaders. These initiatives and policies included:

  • A formal policy requiring a call for leadership to be posted for all vacant or changing leadership positions, allowing all members to volunteer or be nominated.
  • Accepting successful experience outside of the organization to hold more weight than it once did when selecting candidates for leadership.
  • Enabling leaders at the grassroots level to be more confident that their ideas will be listened to and heard.
  • Purposely creating smaller leadership roles for the next generation of leaders in hopes that they will emerge with experience under the tutelage of proven veterans.

Significant change requires significant leadership with vision, courage, and resolve. Once the grip of leadership had been relinquished, it produced a positive and powerful result, moving IDEC from being board-centric to having extended reach.

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July 7, 2011

Board assessment for long-term improvement

Next up in our series of questions on lessons to be shared at the 2011 ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo is a question for Thomas C. Dolan, Ph.D., FACHE, CAE, president and CEO of the American College of Healthcare Executives, and Vernetta Walker, director of consulting at Boardsource. Dolan and Walker will lead an Annual Meeting Learning Lab titled "Board, Assess Thyself."

How do you establish board self-assessment in a way that carries forward year to year, so that the insights gained from the self-assessment don't roll off the board as directors' terms end?

Dolan and Walker: Board self-assessments are an important tool that enable boards to cultivate a culture of good governance. To ensure a continued focus on governance issues over the long term, it is important for board leadership to nurture an environment of accountability and continuous self-improvement. The chair and CEO should reinforce the idea that board transformation occurs over time and that progress will be made only if the board makes governance a priority and works consistently and conscientiously on building and maintaining sound practices and policies. Positioning self-assessments as a priority to help the board identify strengths and necessary changes will help ensure that this best practice is carried forward, even when the leadership changes.

Thanks, Thomas and Vernetta. Readers, please share your thoughts: How do you encourage your boards to make a long-term board transformation a priority?

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June 15, 2011

What good is governance without influencers?

I've been mulling over the topic of "influence" for a couple weeks now, ever since I read Maggie McGary's blog post, "Influence in the Context of Associations," on May 31.

She raises a point that traditional influencers in associations—board members and other volunteer leaders—are being supplanted by thought leaders whose influence is sown in the digital realm:

"[A]s time goes by and more of your members begin interacting in the online community, a new group of influencers will grow out of those interactions. Meanwhile, traditional influencers—board and committee members—will become less visible and, therefore, less influential and important, at least to members. Will you know when this change occurs, or will you be stuck in thinking the wrong people matter the most?"

I agree with her on this point. The rise of online influencers started years ago, and they're here to stay. Maggie and I traded some thoughts in the comments, but I want to take her "are you missing the revolution" question and discuss it further, because I think it challenges the association governance model itself.

From a basic perspective, association governance is a structure through which a large community organizes its members' beliefs and goals and channels them into action. In the past, this structure created influence and bestowed it upon those within it (volunteer leaders) just by virtue of the association's position as the sole arbiter of networking, advocacy, and knowledge exchange within the industry. There was simply no other game in town.

But, increasingly, members can now share their beliefs and goals—and can influence and be influenced—without the formal structure. So where does that leave governance?

I see three options, but each one raises more questions:

  • Keep the traditional system, but bring new outside influencers into the system (i.e., nominate your online influencers to be real-life board members). Sounds good, but do these people want to participate in that role? Or, if they do, will they lose what influence they had?
  • Ditch the governance system. Can an association without a governance system still even be called an association? Relying on leaders and influencers to arise "organically" seems to me like a Wild-West scenario. I just don't see how collective action on a large scale can occur without some sort of organizational system emerging.
  • Develop a hybrid. Hybrid is a nice word, but I have no idea what this would look like. In some way, it would mean creating better connections between traditional leaders and outside influencers.

In any case, the dilemma Maggie highlights is a significant challenge for effective governance. If governance is supposed to be the method for gathering an industry's collective goals and channeling them into action, it's going to have to evolve the capacity for capturing influence that's now arising in a greater variety of places.

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April 22, 2011

Do less, achieve more

In my January 14 post, "Do association CEOs have what it takes to lead in the reset economy?," I identified three themes that emerged from a candid discussion among chief staff officers at the 2010 ASAE Annual Meeting. Perhaps the most challenging of these can be summarized by this question:

How do CEOs exert even more future-focused leadership while not being perceived as controlling or overly directive?

The premise, which we've discussed in previous posts, is that we have pretty much exhausted our options on the expense side, and now boards, realizing that hanging on until the upturn happens isn't the best strategy, are expecting that we grow our way out of our problems while pushing toward the desired future state. At the risk of oversimplifying the challenge, let me propose a possible approach to get the conversation going:

  • Do less, achieve more. Listening to Matthew May at Great Ideas really clarified, for me, the power of simplicity and focus. Many of our colleagues in the for-profit sector have learned this lesson the hard way, and "taking on too much" is considered a good predictor of failure. I realize that we've been saying this to ourselves for years, but given the above imperative, is there really any other way to move forward?
  • Push the partnership. We can't sustain progress toward big goals if we do not maintain the support of our elected leadership. Neither can we afford to be perceived as controlling or directive or worse. What we can do, however, is to intensify our promotion and facilitation of the board-CEO partnership (e.g. "We need to do this together").
  • Keep things in perspective. Finally, we all need to remember that we are helping an industry, profession, interest, or cause navigate a small part of its journey toward greater relevance. Great progress was made before us and will continue after we are gone. It is a privilege to have the opportunity to help lead an organization through times like these, and the learning experience will be priceless regardless of the quantitative outcomes, some of which will be beyond our control.

What are your thoughts on how we CEOs can become the leaders we need to be in these remarkable times?

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April 21, 2011

Rethinking consensus

In a previous post, I put "Consensus bad" as part of the title. I wanted to expand on that idea a little more. There's nothing inherently evil about consensus. It's not something you need to work to avoid.

But consensus should be a warning. It should make you pause for a minute and question how you reached it. Let me explain.

Consensus usually comes about in one of four ways, two of which are positive and two of which are negative.

First, the powerful overcome the less powerful without regard to the merits of the arguments being made. Those without power go along with the decision. Why? Any number of reasons. Some will see it as a duty. Some will feel like they weren't heard or that the powerful had already made up their minds and there was no argument to be made. Some will lack self-esteem. There's no question conclusions reached in such a manner would not be as good as they could be for an organization.

Second, decisions get watered down to appease all sides of a debate. This one can be tricky, as negotiating and give-and-take can certainly be a part of good decision making. However, decisions reached this way are unlikely to be bold. They are likely to be safe and inoffensive; they will have low risk and low reward. Not inherently evil, but if it's the dominant way decisions are made in an organization, then the organization is headed for mediocrity and, ultimately, obsolescence.

A third way a group might reach consensus is that the better argument wins over all decision makers. It's pretty straightforward, and as long as everyone in the group feels like the process has been fair, that all opinions have been heard, and they don't feel pressured to vote with the crowd, then such a consensus is positive.

Finally, a group can devise, consider, and adopt an entirely new option as a result of deliberations. This is the best possible outcome of group decision making. By definition, it's outside the box; it's "other" on a true-false quiz; it's the road less traveled. It doesn't guarantee the decision is right, but I think it does guarantee that the group used the best possible decision-making method.

Two thoughts to leave you with.

First, I'm sure you spotted the corollary between the positive and negative kinds of consensus. There are only shades of difference between the powerful charging forward with their way and an argument that wins over individuals. Likewise, there are only shades of difference between negotiating a decision and developing an entirely new alternative. That's why if you do have consensus on an action, it should be a warning. It should make you go back and analyze how it was reached--was it a positive or negative process.

Second, mandating consensus will most assuredly lead to it, which means many of your decisions (and I'd say most of them) are likely to be the result of bad consensus, and your organization will suffer as a result.

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April 15, 2011

Consensus bad, turbulence good

Just a quick thought based on a conversation I was part of a few weeks ago. In that conversation, there was a general consensus that the goal of a board meeting--the ultimate board meeting, if you will--is one that sails smoothly.

The people in the discussion had a lot more experience running boards than I do, but my position was: What's the point? Of course you don't want pandemonium. But I want my volunteers, the ones entrusted to chart the course for my organization, to wrestle with the hard issues. You can't struggle with difficult issues and expect smooth sailing. I don't want consensus. I want there to be various opinions, and I want those opinions debated out in the open, and I want people to have to vote on a course of action (or recommendation), and I don't expect that vote to be unanimous.

So my ideal board or volunteer meeting, then, isn't smooth sailing. It's one where tension is an integral part. It then becomes the role of the chair and/or staff to ensure that the tension is used creatively and constructively.

Smooth sailing? No thanks. Give me the choppy seas--you're doing more and having more fun, not to mention it's a choppy-sea world.

UPDATE: As was pointed out in the comments, Jamie Notter has an excellent recent post on consensus. I strongly encourage readers to check it out.

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March 10, 2011

Quick clicks: The good, the bad, and the board

Board size. Dave Phillips, CAE, suggests the size of association boards can and should vary greatly, depending on the needs of any given organization. (His organization's board has 200 members!) Some interesting discussion has arisen in the comments, as well.

Bad boards. Eric Lanke, CAE, points to a list of characteristics of a bad board at a for-profit and offers an equivalent list for association boards. (And board size comes up again.)

Innovation. Last week, Jeff De Cagna interviewed Matthew May and posted the full interview podcast to his blog. May is author of The Shibumi Strategy: A Powerful Way to Create Meaningful Change and will speak at this week's Great Ideas Conference.

Association (r)evolution. Shelly Alcorn, CAE, believes associations must change their behavior, and in the first two parts of a series of posts, she examines associations from a sociological perspective and argues that membership creates harmful barriers to pursuing common good.

Museums as associations. Colleen Dilenschneider makes the case that museums should adopt the association model and many of its best practices.

Cash or volunteers? The UK's Directory of Social Change asked nonprofits last month if they'd rather get a £10,000 cash donation or the equivalent in volunteer hours, and 91 percent said they'd take the cash. I could see a healthy debate there, so I'm surprised the results were that one-sided. The summary shares some interesting quotes from respondents.

Wisdom. David Patt, CAE, shares a story from early in his career about the pitfalls of being a board chair at just 26 years old.

Like. Nieman Journalism Lab points to new research into the most-Liked links on the web (and by "Like," we mean the Facebook vote of approval). The most popular articles tend to be opinion-based, ones that are "implicit invitations to discussion and interchange." Member engagement FTW.

[By the way: we're looking for volunteers interested in book blogging. (See past book blogging series here.) It's pretty simple; you read a book from which you can draw some lessons about association management (or organizational leadership in general), and you write a series of three or four blog posts for Acronym. It's a great way to contribute to the community discussion. If you're interested, contact Scott and me at acronym@asaecenter.org.]

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March 4, 2011

Get on Board! Young Professionals on Boards of Nonprofits and Associations

Many young (or new) professionals are interested in serving on the board of directors of a nonprofit or association. That's why a group of us (Shana Campbell, Gina McClure, Jennifer Teters, Garen Distelhorst, and I) from ASAE's Leadership Academy Class of 2010 developed a toolkit to provide helpful information on how you can find a board position, increase your chances for being selected for a board, and learn how you can best contribute as a board member. 

We created a survey that was sent out to young professionals to learn how they have been successful with getting on a board. The purpose of the survey was to gain insight into the tools and processes that young professionals used to get on a board of an association or nonprofit. The information from the survey was also found to be valuable for executives as it helps them understand the benefits of having a young professional on their board.

The survey asked questions like:

  • Why do young professionals want to serve on a board of a nonprofit or association?
  • How do young professionals find out about board positions?
  • What are the three most important actions that a young professional can take right now to improve his or her chances of being recruited or selected to serve on a board?
  • What assets, skills, or experiences do you think were essential for a young professional to be successful on a board?

This survey was supported by Boardsource, Humanics, Young Non-Profit Professionals Network and the ASAE Young Association Executives community. 

The results of the survey and project will be presented at the 2011 ASAE Great Ideas Conference on Monday, March 14. In addition, there will be follow-up publications released after the conference. If you're interested in this topic we would love to see your comments.

Rebecca Swain-Eng, MS, works for the American Academy of Neurology in St. Paul, Minn. She is a graduate of the inaugural class of the ASAE Leadership Academy.

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November 9, 2010

White Like Me

We talk a lot about America and its businesses being world leaders, but I have to say that I am extremely disappointed that, as a result of elections last week, the U.S. Senate will include not a single African-American member. That should be of major concern no matter what party you prefer.

The three African-American candidates--all of which happened to be Democrats this time--lost, and the single black incumbent is retiring. According to CNN, "only six black senators have ever served in the U.S. Senate: three Republicans and three Democrats, including President Barack Obama." That raises a mighty serious question about how we as Americans view leaders from minority populations.

And sadly, this problem extends to the power positions within associations and nonprofits as well. I try not to roll my eyes when I hear someone say, "We can't find any minority members willing (or qualified or whatever) to run for the board," or "we don't have many minority members, so our board tends to stay white." Really? I don't see recruitment problems at associations whose names depict a certain race, gender, or other defining demographic--those leadership pipelines appear to operate quite well.

Minorities exist in every field and profession, but maybe they haven't heard about your association, or feel welcome there, or feel like it is relevant enough. Or maybe not enough effort has been made to focus in on tracking down these types of perhaps behind-the-scene members or nonmembers and finding methods to help them engage in ways that they find valuable.

Like the federal face we are now showing the world, we have failed to reflect the true diversity of our nation and our business community. As both parties gear up for the 2012 presidential race, which will again feature wonk talks about the tipping-point capability of voting minority citizens, I hope discussions about current leadership pipelines (or lack thereof) for African Americans and minorities will become much messier and disruptive. And I'm hoping that discussion carries over into the association community because we must take this issue more seriously.

Census data show that an estimated 14% of our population is Black, and that number is growing. We must purge the old excuses about minorities' "apathy toward associations" and try new thinking, new models, new outreach efforts. The world is predominantly nonwhite, and they are watching--both our country and its business community.

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November 1, 2010

Buffett's bombshell: Succession planning "Warren's way"

It's always buzz-worthy when a high-profile, much-respected business leader names a successor, so it's no wonder that when Warren Buffett announced that he would groom 39-year-old Todd Combs, who manages a small Connecticut-based hedge fund, as his successor at Berkshire Hathaway, the business world reeled a tad.

What interests me--and is most relevant to associations--about the commentary is the following:

(1) Kudos galore are flying around for Buffett having named a successor at all, especially since he is not ill or imminently retiring. What? My question is why on earth hasn't he identified one long ago? His company oversees a $100-billion investment portfolio, and Buffett is hardly a young 'un. You'd think that with his exposure to the best of the best in the biz world, he would have identified some possibilities a decade or more ago and started nurturing them along, even though he isn't going anywhere himself at the moment.

Journalists are lamenting that more CEOs haven't named a successor, whether privately or publicly, and brought him or her in-house early enough to fully integrate into the culture, customer base, and organization. The same is true at many of America's largest, most potent associations. The CEO doesn't think an exit is in the near future, so succession planning isn't high on the priority list. As witnessed often in the corporate world, this can be a huge mistake. Still, we in the association world continue to wonder why CEO transitions are so hard. They really shouldn't be if the successor has been incorporated into the organization early enough--and that takes a mindful plan.

(2) Buffett's choice is a major surprise--an under-40 guy who hasn't handled nearly the wealth size of tens of thousands of other investment managers. However, Combs' approach--his work ethic and style, especially as they relate to researching information first-hand and not subscribing to "what everybody knows"--are apparently what captured Buffett's attention.

Again, as he has with his investment choices, Buffett bucks the "experience trumps all" assumptions on hiring and goes with his gut, essentially. Sure, he would have delved into Combs' background and numerical track record, but he obviously favors vision, personality, and approach over the details of exactly how much the guy has or hasn't yet managed. Maybe this latest bombshell by one of the business world's most revered icons will inspire CEOs within both the for-profit and not-for-profit fields to set aside the long resumes and look for leaders instead who demonstrate the values and style most needed by their organizations.

And for those incumbent association CEOs smart enough to be shopping for or already mentoring their next assumed successor, perhaps one of the questions to ask is, "What would Buffett do?"

You'll find dozens of association succession planning tools and resources on ASAE's website, (including an--ahem--"emergency CEO succession plan" in this Models & Samples Library list).

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October 26, 2010

Collaboration for collaboration's sake

A few weeks ago, Scott linked via Quick Clicks to a blog post by Marsha Rhea titled "Calling Time-Out on the Culture of Over-Collaboration and Over-Commitment." She argues that association executives are overcommitted to collaboration, leading to some bad side effects:

"[H]ow can anyone do quality work racing from one staff meeting to the next conference call with a volunteer committee … ? More association and nonprofit executives need to call time out and recognize the high cost of this behavior. Sure they do an amazing amount of good work in any given day. I admire their stamina and flexibility. Yet I am confident they need more wide open expanses of unscheduled time to do truly great work and lead breakthrough changes in their organizations."

I'd like to echo Marsha's concern about over-collaboration, but I'm not worried about the side effects. I worry about the direct effect. Is all that collaboration really worthwhile?

Associations are, in essence, groups of people with a common purpose, so our first inclination is to answer "yes" to that question. I've never quite understood this degree of faith in the collaborative process, though. It assumes that, because a solution was found via a group, it must be the best one. I just don't buy that that's always the case. (I come from a writer's background, though, where solitary work is the norm. Maybe I'm just biased.)

I can't discount collaboration entirely, of course, because I've certainly worked in some highly productive group experiences. But another reason I find the belief in collaboration puzzling is that we've all seen how it can go wrong: Show me an association executive who says she has never at least once seen something watered down by a committee, and I'll show you a liar.

To put it simply, assuming collaboration is always positive puts a greater value on process than it does on results. It ought to be the other way around. Surely collaboration is great in the right situations, but not all the time.

So perhaps the question isn't "Is collaboration worthwhile?" but rather "How much of it is?" How do you pick the right times and situations in which to collaborate, and how do you make sure you're doing it right?

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October 20, 2010

Sam Pettway on how governance will be different

To expand on the Sept./Oct. Associations Now cover story on 5 Questions for the Next 5 Years in which we asked association executives to answer one of five questions, we're asking an outside expert for an answer here on Acronym.

In this installment, we have Sam Pettway, the founding director of BoardWalk Consulting, an Atlanta-based executive search and governance advisory firm dedicated to building strong foundations for nonprofits. Here is his answer to how governance is changing and what associations need to be thinking about and doing in the next five years:

Five trends that will shake up nonprofit and association boardrooms in the years to come:

Until recently, few people paid much attention to nonprofit board governance, and many organizations saw their boards as regulatory necessities rather than strategic assets.

Today, the news is full of debacles and disappointments: A highly visible church going bankrupt with nearly $100 million in unpaid bills, board chairs and CEOs at name-brand nonprofits losing their jobs over the way pay issues were handled, an explosion of data and information matched by a decline in knowledge, and donors demanding time and reports from nonprofits that they would never expect of their corporate investments.

What can we expect over the next five years? From our talks with scores of board members of all stripes, many of them corporate citizens too, here is what we expect:

1. The recession will end, but our definition of normal has changed permanently. Many associations and nonprofits were caught flat-footed by the decline in support since 2008, and most of the triage has already taken place. Organizations stuck in yesterday's way of thinking will be equally flatfooted in dealing with the next uptick. Are you ready for success?

2. Time is your scarcest resource; waste it at your peril. Boards tend to focus on familiar hells (the current difficulties) rather than unfamiliar heavens (a new definition of success and an implementable plan to get there). A recent board survey of a struggling nonprofit was typical. Among the questions we asked:

Q: How much time does your board spend focused on the future of the enterprise:
A: (Aggregate response) 16%
Q: How much time should the board spend on the future?
A: 48%

The best board members want to engage in the toughest discussions, not a rehashing of the last meeting's minutes. Ask your board strategic questions, and wisest, most committed supporters will develop strategic answers you can use. If your board meetings are boring, it's your fault!

3. If you don't know where you are going, any path will get you there. Too few associations and nonprofits have a clear view of what constitutes success five years from now, and excuses for not doing so are rampant. Board protocols are changing. Yesterday, civility was the norm; today, accountability is, but both depend on a shared vision and a clear definition of success. Have we defined our own success with measurable goals? Have we organized the work of the board, its committees, and its members accordingly?

4. Size matters. If you're not driving conversations in the board room around collaborations, mergers, and other strategic partnerships, you're going to be driven by the conversations in somebody else's boardroom. Said differently, if you don't take charge of your future, someone else will be happy to do so.

5. Expectations matter. Initiatives rarely fail because of incompetence but often because of misplaced expectations. Do your board members agree on just what being a board member entails? In writing?

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September 10, 2010

Is your next volunteer a 'me' guppy?

ASAE's Executive Management Listserv took a slight turn to the bizarre this week when a discussion about board member recruitment turned on a fly fishing metaphor thanks to Bob Collins of APICS and the always insightful Vinay Kumar.

With apologies to any association board members who read this--honest your staffs do not actually think of you as guppies or steelhead or any other type of cold-blooded animal--here is how Kumar broke down, in general, the types of prospective association board members (I slightly edited his work for style):

ME Guppy--it's all about him, what's in it for him. It's constantly about receiving, about taking, what can you do for me, how will this add to my resume, my ego stroking, how I will look good, and so on. In my judgment, of course.

YOU Guppy--it's about continuous giving. But this guppy can run out of energy at some point because she can overcommit, out of goodness to serve. So initially it's a great start with lots of energy, but they can run out of nourishment at some point.

WE Guppy--she is about both giving and receiving. She knows that when those she is serving are successful, so is she. And when she is successful, she has more to give. She sees her success and the success of those she serves as intertwined and interrelated. The more she gives, the more she receives and vice versa.

What struck me is what is often the case with generalizations: the ideas and descriptions resonate, but then most of the time they break down at an individual application level. I can't imagine something that would be much harder than divining someone's motivation at desiring to join a board of directors. When I volunteer my time and energy on something, the complexity behind my motivations is hard for me to work out and accept myself, and would almost always include components of all three of these categorizations. Which one is slightly (or maybe even significantly) ahead of the others is most likely determined by the specific job as much as anything else.

We've all seen the ME volunteer, right? I imagine a lot of us have seen a ME volunteer transform into a WE volunteer. Now we might pat ourselves on the back for being able to train someone to be a good and productive volunteer. But it just might be that a slightly different volunteer assignment--and when you're on a board, you're going to be talking about many different issues, each could be considered a different assignment--is the difference.

In any event, it's an interesting discussion point, I think. The ideas of what metaphoric hook and metaphoric bait to use to land a metaphoric guppy in the desired category was also part of the conversation. (I told you it got a little bizarre. Good, but bizarre.)

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June 29, 2010

Why Staying Mum on CEO Succession Is Dumb

I was sadly reminded recently of a governance issue that most CEOs hate to discuss--succession planning--when I heard about a small nonprofit leader who was suddenly retiring in response to a cancer diagnosis.

Then I saw a new Stanford University/Heidrick & Struggles study that finds "serious gaps in CEO succession planning" in many North American public and private companies. The numbers were startling because I believed that large corporations in particular were far ahead of associations when it comes to CEO succession planning. Maybe they are, in which case, I am far more concerned now that I've read that the average board of directors is spending less than two hours per year on the topic, yet almost 40% of for-profit leaders had "zero" viable candidates to later fill their shoes.

Stanford Professor David Larcker calls the problem a "governance lapse," blaming a "lack of focus" of boards of directors who "just aren't spending the time that is required to adequately prepare for a succession scenario."

What about your board? When was the last time succession was even on your board agenda, especially when you or your CEO weren't thinking of moving on?

I asked a member who has worked in our sector for more than 20 years if she had ever heard a board talk about succession issues. "No, our CEO has been there forever and doesn't plan to leave," she replied. How about die or get sick? CEOs often don't "plan" to leave. That certainly doesn't render the issue moot. Is it that CEOs fear bringing up the topic, not wanting to "give the board any ideas?" That seems lame.

Bill George, speaking at our upcoming Annual Meeting, talks about building leadership and life legacies, as well as developing new leaders, in his classic book, True North.

More direct, though, is another annual meeting speaker, Marshall Goldsmith, whose book Succession: Are You Ready? (2009) guides you through the process of planning and executing a succession transition. He calls it "the greatest challenge for any leader," and that's saying something for this coach who has seen and heard just about everything related to success and failure in business. You can read more about Goldsmith's suggested tactics and advice in an ASAE interview with him in March 2009 called "Smart Succession Planning in Uncertain Times."

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March 24, 2010

Fight, Flight, or Freeze?

When faced with a threat or an environmental stressor, animals have been known to engage in a fight, flight, or freeze response. The human brain reacts similarly in a crisis situation, and because organizations are essentially people, our human instincts and reactions affect our associations.

My boss and I discussed the fight, flight, or freeze concept as it relates to association work during our "Making Lemonade Out of Lemons in a Sour Industry" presentation at the Great Ideas Conference earlier this month. We presented a situation analysis of our association and explored the decision-making process and the tactics we employed to survive one of the most tumultuous economic environments our members had ever experienced.

In early 2008, our leadership team presented our board with a market analysis that resulted in five core strategies, and when the recession set in later that year our board had to decide: fight, flight, or freeze?

In other words, do we run to safer ground by launching new initiatives and targeting new markets, even if they're outside the scope of our mission? Do we freeze in our tracks, hunker down with our members, and wait for the storm to blow over? Or do we focus on what's in front of us, continue with our strategies, and fight through it?

These all are natural responses and there is no right answer. Experience, instinct, collaboration, and leadership play a role in making the best decision for the association. When evaluating our own options, we challenged the board with three questions: what is our focus, who do we serve, and what's in it for them?

Having just developed a strong mission statement for the association, our board was able to answer those questions without hesitation: we are a credentialing organization, we serve advanced investment consulting and wealth management professionals, and the value we provide is world-class educational content.

Ultimately, the board's decision was to continue with what we already had set in motion. The board and staff were confident that the five core strategies were in alignment with our mission and that we had developed the resources and infrastructure needed to meet those strategic goals. And with the help of volunteer and staff discipline, the avoidance of mission-creep, conservative budgeting, and serendipitous timing, we were fortunate to experience growth (albeit small) and increased member satisfaction in 2008 and 2009.

So what is your focus, who do you serve, and what's in it for them? Those three questions seem so simple, but if you presented them to your board today would you receive clear, consistent answers? It can be a helpful exercise for simplifying what is often an overwhelming array of member types, benefits, and initiatives, and can help you determine your association's own path when it comes to fight, flight, or freeze moments.


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February 1, 2010

Governance in 2030

January may be over, but Governance Month continues for another week on Acronym. (We are not bound by your standard calendar here!)

Our next guest post comes from David Kushner, CAE, of the Kushner Companies. David has extensive experience as an association executive, consultant, and board member, and he agreed to share his thoughts on what association governance might look like in 20 years, in the spirit of the January Associations Now cover story, "Visions for the Future of Associations."

Here's what David had to say:

The governing boards of associations in 2030 will not look like the boards of today. As we sort through all the changes we are facing in associations and philanthropic organizations today, including social media, enhanced access to information and knowledge through the Internet, reduced willingness to travel for meetings, time pressures from work and family commitments, and changing perceptions of governance, there will continue to be a series of shifts in our not-for-profit organizations.

Today, when we conduct new board member orientation sessions, we advise participants to exercise great care when using electronic media for governance communications. We all know of regrettable instances when accidental distribution of sensitive information result in hurt feelings, political crises, or worse, legal problems.

Now shift your thinking forward, factoring in the incredible level of acceptance of these means of communications, and ask yourself: How will your association deal with the even more rapid and constant levels of interaction that are coming? How will governing boards ensure the participation of all board members when using new forms of communications? How will they maintain confidentiality of electronic discussions? How can they build processes for deliberation on issues and policies that will avoid legal challenges to decisions made in a world of universal access to information?

I propose that the business of governance will no longer be episodic. Rather, there will be a constant stream of both text and visual interaction among leaders that could challenge the abilities of association staff to manage the organization’s messages and to deal with unexpected problems as they surface. The pace of business that we find so challenging today will seem as slow as the fax machines we used just a few short years ago.

We will not be required to physically travel to a site for most board meeting to take place. Our organizations will be required to modify policies, procedures, and expectations for how to handle governance meetings. The important interactions that result from the present model of face-to-face meetings are rapidly changing, and few groups have considered how they will resolve the varied challenges that are sure to result. As board members spend less time together physically, will they actually have more net interaction electronically?

I expect service on governing boards will be easier to perform, be less costly for members, and allow for more nimble action on issues. This will, however, require us to plan now for a process of smooth transition to new governance models that embrace change.

What do you see as the critical governance issues associations and foundations will face over the next several years and how should they begin the process of considering fundamental governance changes?

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January 28, 2010

The new work of governing

Most regular Acronym readers are going to recognize the author of our second guest post during governance month. He's the dean of association blogging, having started the first blog I know about whose purpose was to make associations stronger. He's on The Center for Association Leadership Board of Directors, is a frequent (and I mean frequent) presenter at ASAE & The Center events, and you can find his blog--still going strong--at P.I. Blog. Jeff De Cagna:

In his post introducing this month’s conversation on Acronym, Scott Briscoe pointed out that despite the importance of governing to the association community, it “doesn’t ignite the passions and creativity of big ideas.” Similarly, in some of my recent talks, I’ve posed the following question to association leaders:

How can associations govern in ways that nurture and unleash energy, passion and imagination?

Sadly, most attendees don't make a connection between what they see in the current practice of governing inside their organizations and the opportunity to "nurture and unleash energy, passion and imagination." In fact, their real world experiences with how governing operates lead most of them to reach the opposite conclusion.

As we begin the second decade of the 21st century, the time has come to change our view of governing from a wanting yet necessary evil with which associations must cope, to a driver of value creation and a source of genuine strategic advantage. We can accomplish this critical shift by challenging “governing groups” (an umbrella term that includes all stakeholders who contribute to the governing process, not just boards of directors) to commit to undertake “the new work of governing,” which I describe below:

• Designing purpose-driven business models through innovation--In today’s hyper-competitive operating environment, the stale “for-profit vs. non-profit” debate is an irrelevant distraction from the broader strategic challenge of creating “thrivable” associations, i.e., organizations with the capacity to flourish by leveraging the forces of paradigm shift. Associations need vibrant business model innovation, and governing groups must provide support to imaginative experimentation efforts with the goal of developing new business models that fully integrate the inextricably linked pursuits of purpose and profit.

• Building capacity for "thick value" creation--The viability of new business models will depend on whether associations can innovate to produce novel forms of authentic value for customers, members and other stakeholders seeking deep support and meaningful solutions to complex problems. Governing groups must build a clear and context-specific understanding of what this kind of “thick value” looks like for its communities, and ensure that the right mix of organizational capabilities is available to create it.

• Nurturing cultures of shared responsibility for stewardship--In the reset economy, the intelligent, long-term stewardship of associations is a critical element of thrivability. Every association is a commons, and the success of the commons requires cooperation and collaboration. Governing groups can cultivate commons thinking by building shared commitment to interdependent action and nurturing cultures of shared responsibility as part of a strategic framework for meaningful stakeholder contribution and engagement.

• Coordinating new social systems for contribution and engagement--To maximize the substantive impact and value of stakeholder contribution and engagement, while minimizing its disruptive impact on stakeholders themselves, associations need to design and implement systems that eliminate bureaucratic legacy structures while making participation as convenient, simple and social as possible. Governing groups also need to establish new “terms of service” covenants with contributors that are reciprocal, ensure mutual benefit and build social capital across the organization.

The new work of governing is not the same as the old work of governing, and that is precisely the point. As long as there are governments interested in monitoring and scrutinizing association activities, governing groups will continue to have compliance and oversight responsibilities that exist specifically to reduce unnecessary and harmful risks. The new work of governing is about establishing an organizational mindset and architecture to support essential and generative risk-taking, a strategic intention for 21st century association success that only governing groups can choose.

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January 27, 2010

The value of "getting to know you" to good governance

Meet Mike Grubb, president and CEO of the Southern Gas Association in Dallas. In the video below, Grubb tells the story of the early interactions he had with his 2009 board chair, which helped to build a solid working relationship and made it easier to have tough conversations about budget shortfalls later in the year.

Grubb says that what might be viewed as mere "getting to know you" conversations should be considered just as crucial as the more substantive conversations that also happen between an association CEO and a board chair.

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January 25, 2010

Please make board governance sexy

All right, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I struggle to find anything fun about board governance. Even the name, uggh, it just sounds so boring, like this book I read in a college anthropology class called 'Life in a Pre-Bureaucratic Portuguese Fishing Village' that I still have nightmares about. If there is an association composed of Portuguese fisher folk out there, I apologize in advance and mean no disrespect toward their matriarchal culture.

Over the years I have found in myself a passion for things that I'm sure when I was 10 years old I would have made a face at, including:

- Stuffing envelopes (allows me to think clearly without a computer in my face)
- Strategic planning
- Marketing (I was going to be a marine biologist, where did I go wrong?)
- Sales
- Travel to trade shows (don't ask me why)

Yet a passion for governance eludes me. I understand all the blah blah about how important it is to the association etc., but I am asking all of you governance gurus out there: What is the source of your personal passion related to board governance? What motivates you and what rewards do you get out of it that make you feel all warm and fuzzy? Please don't leave me hanging!

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January 20, 2010

The price of sharing that war story with a colleague

Here's a post contributed for our Governance Month from Jeffrey Cufaude. Not sure how you've missed him if you have, but read through most thoughtful posts here on Acronym, and Jeffrey is usually adding an interesting comment or two -- and keep up with his own writings on his Idea Architects blog.


“You think your board’s bad, you wouldn’t believe what mine did at our last meeting.”

It’s a common bonding moment at gatherings of association staff members as individuals take turns sharing the latest tale of woe about some misstep involving volunteer leaders. We commiserate, we laugh, and we engage in the time-tested ritual of all professions: telling war stories.

But is it an “exemplary standard of professional conduct?” Because that is the first item listed in ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership’s Standards of Conduct, the code all ASAE members agree to uphold upon becoming a member.

Give me a break, Cufaude. This is harmless. Everybody does it at some time or another. It’s just a way of letting off a little steam with colleagues who can understand.

Yep, it is. But again, is it an exemplary standard of professional conduct? It may be normal or common, but is it exemplary? One of the common tests in ethical dilemmas is to consider whether or not you would want your conduct detailed in a prominent publication. I’m fairly sure some of the stories I’ve heard association professionals tell over the years are ones they would prefer not to see splashed across any page in the Washington Post or any other newspaper.

Get off your moral high horse Cufaude. Geez. Everyone needs to cut loose once in awhile.

Yep, we do, but at what potential cost? At the expense of our board members or other volunteers who donate their time and talents to our organizations? Do they really deserve us speaking of them in somewhat derogatory tones to people they don’t even know in forums where they can’t respond?

The tone of these remarks rarely suggests we are trying to solve the problem, one of the many we as association professionals are hired to address: strengthening the governing capacity of our association. It’s not, “hey my board is really getting into the weeds and I could use some advice on how to help them focus on the big picture.”

The tone is gossipy and sometimes mocking of the people we describe. It’s conversational one-upmanship. It engenders a good laugh and then people go about their business … which is … working with the leaders they just criticized … aka, their bosses.

Beating up on the boss is too easy. And more importantly? It doesn’t change anything.

So let’s commit more of our capability to the really hard work: having respectful and honest conversations with the volunteers involved in governance about the shortcomings we see and the opportunities to strengthen their contributions and more effectively lead our organizations. Let’s dial down the war stories and make peace with the fact that we have work to do. And let’s exemplify the highest standards of professional conduct as we go about doing it.

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Being pressured to disregard your ethical boundaries

Meet John Saunders, executive director of the National Forum for Black Public Administrators. In the video below, John tells an early-career story where a board member pressured him to hire a particular consultant who was the board member's friend.

There's not much dilemma in this ethical dilemma, at least not until you consider he was a new hire and had just moved his family to a new location and was just beginning to get settled—all of a sudden, he's wondering if he made a big mistake.

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January 12, 2010

Introducing a difficult concept to the board

As part of our emphasis on governance, we're asking a few CEOs to talk about having critical conversations with their volunteers. Here's an insightful two minutes from Tanya Howe Johnson, president and CEO of Partnership for Philanthropic Planning, on how to introduce a difficult concept to the board of directors: (1) position it as board issue, not a personal agenda, and (2) find a champion.


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January 8, 2010

Having the social media talk with your board

If you thought a "governance" theme for this month meant we'd get away from social media topics, you were wrong. Seems like social media touches everything now, like it or not, and we've found at least one way to tie it to governance.

Are any of your board members or volunteer leaders on Twitter? Do any of them have their own blogs? Does the prospect of one of them blogging about your latest board meeting make you a little queasy?

Blogging or tweeting about a board meeting isn't automatically a bad thing. If that volunteer has a dedicated following among other members, it can help generate wider engagement around the direction of the association. But, even though every board meeting is ideally transparent, many of us would agree that board meeting discussions could be taken out of context or misconstrued rather easily. Just read the reaction to Kristin Clarke's post last month about video broadcasting board meetings.

I don't think the answer to this concern is too complicated, though. You can't ignore it and hope it will go away, but you also can't forbid your board members and volunteers from talking about their service via social media either (at least not without alienating them, and they might still do it anyway). So, take the middle road: encourage them to blog or tweet responsibly.

There's likely no need to elevate this to a written policy; rather, just have a little talk with your volunteer leaders about their use of social media and remind them of the often sensitive nature of board and committee discussions (and also outright confidential info, like legal matters, of course). Chances are, you cover this when talking to them about various aspects of their fiduciary duty as board members, so your best option may be to simply include social media communication in that discussion, as well.

Maybe this is a no-brainer, but as social media continues to permeate our various methods of communicating, it's worth a few minutes of thought. Keep it in mind for your next board orientation.

Any of you CEOs out there care to share how you address social media with your boards and volunteers?

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Welcome to Governance Month

As we’ve said a few times now—thank you for the fabulous theme month of December. With your participation, it became bigger and better than we could have imagined.

As I introduce a theme for January—I’m wondering if we can come anywhere close. Our theme:

Governance

It perhaps doesn’t ignite the passions and creativity of big ideas. But would anybody deny that association boards play a huge role—for good or ill (and, as always, probably both)—in our organizations?

Want to translate it into a big idea: Somebody write this post for me and I’ll promise to write a rebuttal taking an opposing view: “What if associations could do away with their board of directors—why should they (or shouldn’t they) and what would that look like?”

We’ll have some video of association CEOs and (cross my fingers) some insights from a couple of brilliant governance experts, as well as some thoughts from the usual crew of Acronym bloggers. To start things off, here are some stats, with my commentary. These are from ASAE & The Center’s relatively new Benchmarking in an Instant program. (Note: these numbers are continually updated as someone new completes the survey. “n” is the number of respondents at the time this was written.)

First, some board composition stats (n=62):

Number of voting board members: 15.2

Number of nonvoting board members: 2.8

Number of board members under age 50: 5.6

Number of female board members: 4.4

Number of board members that are members of ethnic or other minority groups: 1.2

My thoughts—Not sure what to make of the board size. There are many who preach that smaller is better, and while I don’t think you can govern effectively with 75 or 100, I think there are some advantages to a 40-person board and other advantages to a 10-person one. The culture of the board and the organization are much bigger factors in how effective the board is.

The age stat doesn’t really bother me the way it might other people. A fifty-year-old has another 15 or 20 if not more years of career left, and you figure he or she has 25 or so years of career service already. I would expect, and don’t think it a bad thing, that boards skew older. Maybe I’d be more comfortable if this number were 6 or 7. What would worry me is if I looked at my board and I saw it being pretty much all to one side of age 50.

The gender question – eh, it’s not good enough, but I would guess that this is an improved number over a few years ago, and I think it will continually improve. I hope we keep doing better, and quicken the pace some. Now ethnic and other minority groups: that’s a pathetic number; we’ll have to do better than that to survive.

Some policy questions: We asked association execs if their boards have formal, written processes, policies, procedures, or roles related to the following (n=69).

Monitoring the financial and risk management of the association.

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Certainly the right piece of pie is larger, but if you don't have a process, policy, or procedure for this, what do you have one for? I don't understand the quarter of associations who don't.

Managing the investment portfolio.

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Again, a third of associations don't have this policy? Fiduciary duty.

Requiring periodic rotation of auditing firms and/or their partners on the association's account.

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Guess this is a best practice that hasn't caught on yet. If you don't have such a policy, Google "Enron audit firm."

Specifying its protection of whistleblowers.

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So much to learn from Enron.

Specifying conflict of interest.

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Now that's more like it. I mean you gotta figure there's gonna be three clueless percent out there on just about any question.


Assessing the board's overall performance.

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Not surprised really, but seems like it would be a good practice.

Evaluating the performance of the executive director.

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Just wow! Was thinking this one would look more like the conflict of interest graph. Why would any CEO not be pushing for this until he or she got it through? Would seem essential if you value your livelihood.

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August 17, 2009

“Social is a way of being”

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I attended Jeff De Cagna’s session, Associations Next: Serious Questions for 2010 and Beyond this afternoon. Whenever I have the opportunity, I make it a point of attending Jeff’s presentations, which are always insightful and thought-provoking. I find that the questions he raises linger with me long after the conference is over and typically prompt rich discussions with my colleagues. This afternoon’s session was no exception.

After stepping us through a series of 6 questions that get at the heart of what it means to associate, govern, and innovate in the web-enabled 21st century, he asked us to spend 10 minutes brainstorming radically different approaches to our association work. What would make the biggest potential impact, even if it meant making our CEOs, boards, and even ourselves very uncomfortable?

Several of the suggestions that came back were so intriguing, I thought I’d share a few of them here:

- One table suggested making membership completely free (we don’t control the network any longer, so why try to make it into a commodity?). Charge a fair-market price for the professional content that is currently packaged with membership and remove the barriers to the conversation. Then the members of our networks who are truly engaged and truly do contribute to the conversation will be able to join without barriers, making the conversation richer for all. (Any association that has opted for open, publicly accessible social media groups understands the value of this free association and not trying so hard to control the message or limit the participants.)

- Another table suggested crowdsourcing our next annual meetings. Empower the community to make the best decisions on its own behalf and deliver a meeting that is exactly what our attendees want. (NTEN, an association I’ve long admired, successfully structures its annual meeting this way, and their conference is consistently an audience favorite.)

- Another group suggested making board service based not on fixed terms, but on best ideas. Decide who remains on the board based upon record of service, innovation, and follow through. Those who aren’t contributing to the conversation could be voted off the island, a la Survivor. (I happened to be sitting in this session with the president of our board, and this suggestion was major fodder for conversation back at the hotel tonight!)

My brain is still buzzing with these ideas and Jeff’s many good questions, and I can’t wait to get back to my own association to continue this conversation with the rest of my team. How could a radically different ISTE better support and shape the conversation for our members and other educators?

What radical idea will you bring back to your organization at the end of this week? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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August 7, 2009

Quick clicks, part II: Electric boogaloo

Since there were so many good posts to choose from this week, I split "Quick Clicks" into two parts. Here's a roundup of some great non-Annual-Meeting-related posts:

- David Patt of the Association Executive Management blog argues provocatively against contested board elections: "Members should care about the quality and quantity of services. If they get what they've paid for, it should make no difference who holds office."

- In other governance-related discussions, the Nonprofit University blog has seven reasons why term limits are a must for nonprofit boards. And at the Off Stage blog, Judith Lindenau discusses some reasons why nonprofit boards should have no more than three committees.

- Kevin Holland at Association Inc. says the sky is not falling--and associations have a bright future ahead.

- At the Zen of Associations, Ann Oliveri wants to know why associations use so much "generic, homogenized association speak."

- Jamie Notter asks if the staff at your association are learning as they go about their work. Are you capitalizing on informal learning opportunities?

- Have you ever considered holding a meeting or conference in partnership with a related organization? At the Drake & Company blog (which has added several new bloggers lately), Steve Drake has some tips for managing a joint conference.

- Cindy Butts at AE on the Verge shares some interesting ideas for team building activities in a tough economy.

- Elizabeth Weaver Engel has some great dos and dont's for RFPs (a re-post of something she wrote a while back, but I hadn't seen it before and maybe you haven't either ...).

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July 17, 2009

Quick clicks: Feeling lucky?

There's lots of great stuff to link to around the association blogging world this week!

Peggy Hoffman at the Idea Center blog says that being an active member of an association can be your lucky charm.

There's been a lot of idea sharing and well, buzz, around last week's Buzz 2009 conference: Maddie Grant has a good roundup here.

A guest post on the Nonprofit University blog has 10 things to love, and 10 things to hate, about nonprofit boards.

The DigitalNow blog suggests trying to see your association through "member tinted glasses."

Matt Baehr at the BlogClump blog writes about the hierarchy of change in associations, and how trying to make start change at the wrong level of the hierarchy can be an exercise in frustration.

Cecilia Sepp at the Association Puzzle blog wants to create a vacation policy for the 21st century. What would you want to see in there?

Web strategy analyst Jeremiah Owyang has an interesting post listing the five organizations allow their employees to participate in the social web, and what they say about the organization in question.

Word-of-mouth guru Andy Sernovitz links to a presentation from PepsiCo on how they're moving into social media, which might be of particular interest to associations that, like PepsiCo, are in the early stages of engagement with the social web.

The Wild Apricot blog explores what to do if your Twitter hashtag and another group's hashtag happen to be the same.

Chris Bonney at the Vanguard Technology blog argues that you can't build a great website by committee.

Ann Oliveri at the Zen of Associations blog muses about how associations can better tap into the brainpower of their past volunteer leaders.

Rebecca Rolfes at the LeaderConnect blog argues that the future of association publishing lies in focusing on the member.

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July 16, 2009

IRS Form 990 – Conflict of Interest Policy

With the new changes to the IRS Form 990 comes a series of questions which associations should answer affirmatively to minimize the chance of the dreaded IRS Audit. Three of the recommended policies all associations should have in place are: (1) Document Destruction, (2) Whistleblower Policy and (3) Board Director Conflict of Interest.

Concerning the Conflict of Interest Policy, there are several procedures which should be put into place:

1. All board members should sign a written Conflict of Interest Policy Statement every year. The Statement gives the individual the option of either acknowledging no conflicts of interest, or noting any areas of concern.

2. At each and every board meeting, the board chair should ask if there are any conflicts the association should be aware of. The outcome should be included in the board minutes.

3. The board should vote upon this procedure PRIOR to it taking effect.

Associations should consult with their Auditors to ensure compliance as the rules do change and are subject to slightly different interpretation depending on the auditing firm!

Does anyone have a different interpretation on this particular policy?

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June 23, 2009

Fact-based decision making

When I was a staffer on Capitol Hill I recall hearing two different stories told quite often during debates on the Senate floor.

One was: There are three types of lies in the world—simple lies; damn lies; and then there are statistics!

The other was: As the Bible says, “Come let us reason together.” We all have our points of view on which we differ, but we should at least be able to agree on the facts—they are what they are. Facts are stubborn things….

Both assertions are true of course. No one needs a course in statistics to know that the gathering and presentation of facts is a serious matter and that a lot of pseudo-science underlies a lot of the “facts” we see cited in advertising that bombards us every day. But it is also true that no rational debate can occur and no sound decision can be made that is not founded on the facts. This is true in all cases and particularly true in board of director meetings—those groups of leaders made up of “type A” personalities, all of whom are quite certain they know the way forward…..

As association managers, we have all had to herd cats on occasion, haven’t we? In this, facts have a way of focusing attention in the right direction. Lacking this compass, we are faced with rule by the most dominant personality, the loudest voice, or the one most skilled in Machiavellian intrigue.

But what are these facts on which your organization makes its decisions? Are they what is true for your board of directors, according to their experience?--your membership, according to their needs and perceptions?—or are they what is true for the market at large? When they differ, which set of facts weigh most heavily on the scales for your organization?

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February 2, 2009

Defining (or redefining) the profile of your board

Does your association’s bylaws or board policies lay out the desired qualities of effective board members?

At the Project Management Institute (PMI), the board of directors recently approved a “Board Future Profile” to describe the expected characteristics of future board members. A task force of current and former board members, reporting to the PMI Governance Committee, prepared the recommendations on board candidate criteria, which are now included in the PMI Rules of the Board, as follows:

a) “An appreciation of the value of the profession served by PMI.
b) The visionary strategic thinking capability to be able to understand the interests of diverse stakeholders, to assess the impacts of environmental and marketplace trends, and then to translate those interests and impacts into strategy.
c) The ability to operate effectively in global environments.
d) The experience of assisting in transformational change driven by strategic issues in a similarly-sized or larger organization.
e) The willingness and experience to serve others.
f) The experience and appreciation of working in a collaborative, collegial, respectful, and productive way with people having diverse backgrounds and viewpoints.
g) The experience of performing governing duties to meet legal and regulatory requirements inherent in the fiduciary oversight role of a board.
h) The ability to use, in an appropriate manner, a network of contacts for the purpose of serving as an advocate for PMI and the profession.
i) The willingness and ability to be an ambassador for PMI and the profession served by PMI.” *

A complete description of these candidate criteria can be viewed in Section 6.0.3 of the “Rules of the Board” at http://www.pmi.org/PDF/Rules%20of%20the%20Board.pdf.

While the language of these characteristics may be more thoughtful and comprehensive than most qualifications for board members, I wouldn’t recommend that you simply adopt or adapt them. The source of power of PMI’s nine characteristics derives from at least two important processes:

• The deliberate and thoughtful way in which the entire PMI board of directors engaged in crafting, exploring, revising, and approving these characteristics provided the intellectual capital and buy-in that are essential to this kind of governance initiative.

• The way in which future nominating committees enlist these characteristics to screen board candidates.

The PMI board also clarified that it expects the total composition of the board to be reflective of the diversity existing in the global project management marketplace in respect to gender, culture, geographic location, and stakeholder groups.

In years to come, the governance committee will be tasked with an annual assessment of how well the existing board members possess these characteristics and how well diversity is reflected within the composition of the board, and it may recommend that the board provide additional guidance to the nominationg committee in any year.

Any association that wants its board to consist of leaders who are fully capable of leading the organization into the future could do well to follow the lead of PMI by crafting and adopting a similar set of characteristics that apply to its specific needs.

(*Project Management Institute, PMI® Rules of the Board, Project Management Institute, Inc., 2008. Copyright and all rights reserved. Materials from this publication have been reproduced with permission of PMI.)

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January 22, 2009

Two great ideas for your board nominations process

Many volunteers (and members yet to volunteer) have little understanding of what it takes to be a successful association board member. Perhaps you can offer to educate them, and you can promote the opportunity as a chance for anyone—already a volunteer or not—to learn about how to pursue a leadership role at your association.

Example: The National Ground Water Association (NGWA) conducts a “Director Candidates School” every year at its annual convention. The CEO and board members provide information on the organization and the board to members who aspire to serve on the board. NGWA invites all committee, subcommittee, or task force members who are not already serving on a board to consider attending as well as officers of their 48 affiliated state associations.

Often, members who apply for board positions are volunteers with whom you and your board are already very familiar. To avoid playing favorites, it may be wise to initially review the applicants with indentifying info removed.

Example: The Society of Actuaries’ nominating committee—consisting of a past president, past section leaders, and past board members—reviews the initial round of applications submitted by nominees “blind” (i.e.,. with the names of the nominated individuals deleted) to avoid biases. Once the candidate list is narrowed down, a smaller number are invited to participate in an educational webcast about the organization, answer essay questions, and submit a bio with background information for the nominating committee to review.

What other great ideas about nominations do you have?

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January 15, 2009

What exactly does a nominating committee do?

The committee that nominates new board members and volunteer leaders for an association may only be composed of a few people, but the work they do can have a very profound influence on the future of an organization.

Indeed, the role of a nominating committee should be one of managing the leadership succession process on behalf of the board, not simply anointing new board members. Here is a sampling of duties that effective nominating committees should be asked to discharge:

- Work with the board to identify the optimal board matrix based on the strengths and needs of the board (including the need for diversity as defined by the organization).
- Identify potential board members.
- Maintain a data base of candidates.
- Screen candidates’ eligibility and assess qualifications for service.
- Prepare a nomination slate.
- Market volunteer opportunities to potential leaders.
- Define leadership development strategies.
- Oversee and monitor leadership development activities.

Does your association’s nominating committee take on these roles? What other roles should a nominating committee fulfill? What’s missing from this list?

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January 8, 2009

The board job description

Have you ever applied for a job without seeing a job description first? Would you ever try to hire a staff member without including a job description in the ad for the job opening?

When it comes to nominating board members at associations, however, this is too often the case. Many associations wait until the board orientation process—after new board members have been selected—to explain the role of the board and the responsibilities of its members. This means candidates may have little or no understanding of the expectations of board members, and the nominating committee has no set of guidelines against which to measure candidates’ qualities and characteristics.

The American Association of Museums (AAM) prevents this problem by disseminating a “Position Description for Board Member at Large” (approved and regularly amended by the AAM Board of Directors) during the nomination process to fill vacancies on the board. This four-page document includes a general description of the role of the collective AAM board, the general duties and obligations of individual board members, the overall recruiting goals for board members (including the diversity criteria that will enhance the board’s composition), and the qualifications or indicators of leadership that the nominating committee will use to screen candidates. The complete position description can be downloaded from AAM’s website.

Does your association have a well-publicized board job description?

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Welcome Nancy Axelrod

Please welcome our newest guest blogger to Acronym: Nancy Axelrod. Nancy is the founding president of the National Center for Nonprofit Boards (now known as BoardSource) and an experienced governance consultant focusing on nonprofit board development, leadership transitions, and meeting facilitation.

Nancy contributed an excellent article to the 2009 Associations Now Leadership Issue focused on "Nominations Know-How," and she kindly offered to share some additional thoughts on nominations with Acronym readers this month. I'm looking forward to Nancy's posts, and your comments!

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December 9, 2008

The Dog Ate My Board Report!

I believe that most board members intend to keep their commitments, but what sounds like a simple task while seated at board table becomes a monumental challenge when real life intervenes. This is also true for association management company executives. The difference is that we have to keep our commitments to our clients or we run the risk of losing a contract.

I have learned good minutes are the key to action and accountability. The worst boards are the ones where the elected secretary does the minutes – late and sketchy. People are confused after the board meeting about what they are supposed to do and when.

There is a simple cure! If possible, offer to take the minutes as part of the service you provide – perhaps just short term to establish a format and train the secretary. Whenever the board decides somebody (board or staff) is going to do something, write it down as an action item – with the person’s name attached. If a completion date is not mentioned, ask the board when it is due (for the minutes). If there is discussion without action, I recommend asking the board if there an action item you should be recording.

Number each action item and make them really stand out in the minutes. I indent them and make them in bold! Then at the end of the minutes, on a separate sheet, I cut and paste all of the action items into a list.

The minutes ideally should go out shortly after the meeting, especially if there are a number of action items. This jogs the memory and gives time for action.

At the start of each board meeting, after the minutes and financials, I have my client boards review the list of action items. Most people, knowing that they are going to have to report to the board, come prepared and on-time. Why? Because they don’t want to have a “the dog ate my homework moment.”

One of our client boards includes an action item completion ratio as part of their dashboard indicators report. When the action items list is reviewed at each meeting, the ratio is given. BTW—Staff actions also go on the list, so we are as accountable as they are.

This strategy, though time-consuming and sometimes ego-bruising, is really just a way to change organizational culture. After several board meetings of 100% accountability, boards begin to fall into line. Board members who are “all talk and no action” sometimes resign (and is that really such a bad thing?).

We are all little kids who don’t want to do our homework if nobody cares whether we did it or not. If it is important enough to list as an action item, it is important enough to ask whether it got done or not.

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November 7, 2008

Politics versus Politicking

I like to believe everyone always acts to the best of their ability. However, upon reflection of past board of directors, local and state governments, I realized this may not be the case. Individuals may compromise their best in order to garner a favor for later. This ‘values stock market’ hinders healthy discussion; to truly represent members and the best of an association, board members need to each share their individual views and concerns, not those views fed to them.

Not to say organizations can, or should, exist without politics. Any organization has politics and its employees and volunteers should work to persuade others. It keeps the organization viable. Oppositely, politicking, or the practice of collecting favors for future use, understanding of the membership and of issues.

How does your organization work to discourage politicking?

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August 18, 2008

Conversations in the Social Responsibility Lounge

Informal programs and chats in the Social Responsibility lounges have produced some wonderful stories of what associations and business partners are doing to move their organizations forward toward greater social responsibility (SR). Here are some snippets:
“How do we move from being successful to being significant?” That’s what a woman from the Project Management Institute said her organization began asking recently, eventually developing a program that moves from caring just about test passing metrics to caring about the whole child.

Richard Moore of the Texas Community College Teachers Association shared that his organization is focusing on four social responsibility (SR) endeavors—community involvement, democracy building, incorporation of SR in educational content, and greening of educational facilities and operations. In addition, since first embracing ASAE & The Center’s SR Initiative a year ago, the association has launched the theme “Community Colleges—Building a Better Texas.”

“This Social Responsibility Initiative fits in completely with what we’re trying to do,” he said.
The Society of Neuroscience had to review its supply chain management after leaders were questioned about whether the copywriters to whom some of its many journals were outsourced in India were being treated and paid appropriately. They then had to give a presentation that showed such outsourcing “validated enhancing of social values,” according to the society’s Marty Saggese. The huge organization also adopted an element in its strategic plan that requires all three SR elements—environmental, social, and economic—to be considered in operational decisions.

Look for Marty’s cool handout at today’s session on greening your organization’s culture: a flash drive made of bamboo.

Other items prompting discussion are two tools being distributed in both SR lounges: a how-to piece on creating a multicultural board, and a checklist/guide for developing a more socially responsibility family lifestyle.

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July 22, 2008

Two Board and Change Management Resources

Nonprofit commentator and educator Michael Gilbert of Nonprofit Online News always has relevant news and interesting analyses, but I especially wanted to pass along two resources he shares in his latest issue.

First, a helpful, free online brochure titled “People Don’t Hate Change; They Hate How You’re Trying to Change Them” by corporate strategist and change consultant Michael T. Kanazawa of Dissero Partners. Gilbert agrees with Kanazawa’s research conclusion that, contrary to popular belief, people hate organizational change programs rather than change itself. In fact, some data show success rates of "strategy execution and corporate change programs” as just 33%. I’m interested in whether other association professionals who read the 13-page brochure can offer suggestions for making change programs more effective.

The second resource Gilbert shares, and one I’d run into already, is a tips-based article from Guidestar’s excellent e-newsletter, “No-Ask Fundraising: Six High-Impact Jobs for Board Members.” Based on Gail Perry’s 2007 book, Fired Up Fundraising: Turn Board Passion into Action (John Wiley & Sons Inc.), these six suggestions might serve as fodder to start a senior staff conversation on the role of the board in fundraising or even a roundtable with board members themselves.

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May 5, 2008

Having an engaged board

I'm at the Exceptional Boards program for CEOs and their incoming board chairs in San Francisco today. One of the early questions that presenters Nancy Axelrod and Paul Greeley asked was what was the single most important governance issue that they were facing. There was a myriad of answers, but one of the recurring answers was board engagement.

A little later in the presentation, Axelrod described the work of David Nadler as written in the Harvard Business Review in May 2004. He described board engagement on a continuum. On one side is the "Passive Board" -- the rubber stamp board that doesn't really deliberate at all. Next on the continuum is the "Certifying Board" -- one where the extent of board activity is fiduciary and other executive functions. In the middle is what most people think is board nirvana -- the "Strategic Board," which is engaged in strategy development, then steps back and lets others do the tactical things. Moving on the continuum is an "Intervening Board," which can be seen at organizations in crisis mode, to an "Operating Board," which does the work of the organization.

As Axelrod pointed out, while there is a lot of talk about having a strategic board, it's important to think about what you mean by that. In practice, different situations call for different levels of board engagement, and one is not necessarily inherently bad. Greeley later added that, in fact, most boards are probably operating at all different engagement levels even at a single board meeting.

I was wondering what readers think about the idea of differing levels of board engagement depending on what the board is working on.

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May 1, 2008

Ego versus Idea

One suggestion in the "dream and design" phase of the Global Summit's Thursday session is for associations to look around them and see if it might be worth....disappearing. Seriously. Andy Clarke, executive director of the League of American Bicyclists (and--full disclosure--my husband), suggested that association leaders examine where overlapping associations exist and needlessly compete when they could simply merge and "create half the number of associations with twice the memberships and eight times the influence."

It's an interesting thought. Certainly I've been part of organizational coalitions in which external stakeholders such as corporations or government agencies have complained that they could hardly keep track of which organizations may be the best partners in, say, the environmental sector because so many have similar agendas, duplicate programs with different names, and murky leadership within their field.

Call me cynical, but I think ego would be the biggest barrier to even a discussion of what widescale association mergers might mean to society and the earth. In the fascinating book Egonomics: What Makes Ego Our Greatest Asset (or Most Expensive Liability), authors David Marcum and Steven Smith look at business success and performance from the standpoint of ego. Their extensive research concludes that unbalanced ego "becomes the ultimate blind spot," with more than one-third of all decisions in failed organizations driven by ego. they note that unbalanced ego slows change and innovation, and "there is a clear difference in the power of knowing versus the discipline of becoming."

However, nearly two-thirds of executives "never explore alternatives once they make up their mind," and "81% of managers push their decisions through by persuasion or edict, not by the value of their idea." A surprising 63% of surveyed businesspeople report that ego harms "work performance on an hourly or daily basis, while an additional 31% say it happens weekly." That's a lot of poor productivity and decision making, as well as lost opportunity.

Might the research differ among association employees? What would you think if your boss walked into a staff meeting and said, "For the sake of the planet, let's do a competitive analysis in our industry with an eye toward potential mergers?" Would you think, "Oh, my gosh, my job's in trouble." "Has he lost his mind?" "Finally!" "Whoopie!"

I remember one small trade association whose CEO actually requested that the board let him shut down the organization because the programmatic and mission overlap with industry competitors had led to unsustainable financial hardship. The board was appalled at the idea. He suggested merging with another group instead. Still they balked, citing the organization's long history and criticizing all possible merger candidates.

I don't recall what happened to the association in the end, but I do know that the CEO eventually left, and at some point, I stopped receiving press releases from the organization. Perhaps if leaders--whether volunteer or paid--move their egos more to the side of humility, they will find that exploring potential mergers would indeed lead ultimately to accomplishment of their broader mission.


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April 10, 2008

Governance: How Does Your Board Compare?

Download file

A McKinsey article, published in late March, summarized the results of a global survey that generated responses from 586 corporate directors, 51 percent of them CEOs or other C-level executives. Respondents represented 376 private and 161 public companies; the remainder work at nonprofit organizations and government agencies. Twenty-six percent of the companies represented in the survey have annual revenues of $1 billion or more.

The file, above, is a Word table that summarizes the major conclusions of the study.

In summary, the majority of survey respondents said they want to give “higher priority to talent management and forward-looking strategies that maximize shareholder value, and spend less time dealing with issues such as compliance” (Sarbanes Oxley is mandatory for many for-profit organizations, and the time spent in compliance appears to have outworn its welcome).

Fortunately, for non-profits, we have not been burdened with the mandatory time and expense in connection with Sarbanes Oxley--which makes sense inasmuch as few non-profit business and governance models run the risks at the same levels that exist in the for-profit sector, and that led to the Sarbanes Oxley regulations. It is an interesting commentary that corporate board survey respondents now say that want to change priority from compliance to strategy and talent management--from reactive to proactive leadership--which are similar issues and challenges faced by non-profit boards and executives.

Back to the survey conclusions, when compared to how the survey participant's boards currently spend their time, the table in the file above summarizes where the largest percentage of respondents said they wanted to spend “more” time, and “less” time, as well as their responses of agreement or disagreement with other characterizations of their boards.

The full article can be found at: http://www.mckinseyquarterly.com/Governance/Boards/Making_the_board_more_strategic_A_McKinsey_Global_Survey_2124_abstract

How does your board compare with the comments from the survey respondents?

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January 8, 2008

Control, trust, and power

I sometimes get behind on reading the listserver digests, so I'm just now getting to the Executive Management Sections discussion from last week about intrusive, micromanaging board members, who cite their fiduciary responsibility as they delve into every detail of the financial reports.

I liked Michael Gallery's reply: the issues are more primal than the finances of the organization. Fundamentally, the issues are trust and control. As he notes, explaining what fiduciary responsibility really means and what directors' and officers liability insurance is for aren't going to solve this problem.

I'd add a third issue to Gallery's two: power. I think control, trust, and power are going to be at the heart of many, many conflicts--not just on boards, but on senior staff, in partnerships, and in many other settings.

I wish I had a silver bullet that would enable execs to manage control, trust, and power. No one does, however. I guess those are recurring themes in loads of the articles I've been a part of in Associations Now and, before that, Executive Update. Some quick thoughts on each of the three:

Control: A clear purpose and a clear set of norms and expectations together with how progress will be measured are essential. Just because everybody starts at the same place doesn't mean they will all see circumstances the same. They won't. But if the begin point is clear, I think it's easier for everyone to accept the majority position, even if as individuals, a few disagree.

Trust: To me, this is a little easier to explain, though it may be just as hard to put into practice. You build trust with transparency and honesty. I think most folks would agree that they try to live by those two words. I also think most of us fail miserably upon close examination. This is especially important in the association context: the membership deserves to know what data and deliberations are behind the decisions that staff and boards make.

Power: I'm a believer that the more power you seek, the less power you will have. Perhaps that's just wishful thinking. To understand the power issue, I think you have to examine the motivations of those involved. Why is it important to them to have power? I think compared to the other two, power is the hardest to manage.

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October 30, 2007

Board Retreat: Insane in the Membrane

Having a board retreat is a fast way to quadruple your to do list, and melt your brain in the process. In recent years, the IGDA has instituted a board retreat to be held each fall. It is part long-term goals/strategy setting, part planning for the year to come, and part team/rapport building among directors. All parts intense.

I just got back from another year's productive retreat. And, despite having a fried brain, three meta things stuck out for me.

1) The Power of Play:
In past years, we'd eat breakfast and then dive right into the agenda at 8:30am. This year, one of our new board members pushed to have us play a game before diving into the agenda. Despite the fact that most of the board members are game creators, we're always so serious at the retreat, and didn't really put much credence in the usual "trust fall" model of team building. However, convincing this group to play a game was not hard. So, we brought in Cranium, which we dutifully played at 8:30am on the first day.

Wow, what a difference. We were rolling on the floor in laughter and giving high fives after every point. The favorite was certainly the "puppet charades" tasks where one member severed as the puppet, who had to be moved by another member while others tried to guess the word. Aside from just having some pure fun for an hour, it got everyone revved up and excited and happy to be there with each other working on stuff they were passionate about.

2) The Risk of Not Spending:
When it came time to discuss budget and other fiscal matters, the question of "what is the IGDA's greater risk" came up to help build some context. I was floored when our very frugal/prudent Treasurer said that (and I paraphrase): "Given the IGDA's rapid growth, our biggest risk is that we don't spend our money fast enough on the programs/services needed to deliver the expected value." In short, spend more and spend faster!

And, it makes total sense. For many years, we've been so careful in managing our funds and being so cautious with new programs, etc. But, given continued growth and overall "doing the right things to attract members", our growth is out-pacing are ability to deliver programs. The last thing we need is for members to feel that their dues are going into the org but never "coming out"...

3) Data is Worthless:
Despite the need to have/crunch data and generally have systems that enable data-mining, showing most directors a pile of numbers is a waste of time. This was the first year we took the extra step to "chartify" all of our stats and performance numbers, etc. We even took somewhat subjective information like grading the health of chapters, and coded it in such a way that the info could be graphed. Seeing the colorful pie charts, bar graphs and obvious line trends enabled a depth of reflection and strategic discussion that I've never seen on the board before. Without getting into details, here are couple of the graphs we explored:

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May 31, 2007

A variety of voices

The May issue of Associations Now featured a column from Bruce Butterfield and Susan Fox urging readers to educate themselves about the perspectives and needs of the millennial generation. We received an interesting e-mail in response from Brynn Grumstrup Slate, which I’m posting here with Brynn’s permission:

As an engaged ASAE member and a member of the Millennial generation, I appreciated the column “Preparing for the Millennial Tsunami” in the May issue of Associations Now. The article would have been even more effective, however, if it had integrated the voice of a Millennial in addition to the experienced views of Bruce Butterfield and Susan Fox and shared a first person perspective on the work habits and career goals of this emerging group.

Although much of our generation is still in school, a sizeable number have already joined the workforce and are striving to make a difference as members of association staffs. One third of the staff at my AMC is made up of Millennials and we are hardworking, dedicated, and keenly interested in both learning from more experienced peers and sharing our own ideas and strategies.

To truly keep abreast of the evolving association workforce,
Associations Now needs to feature articles not just about Millennials, but by them. As Butterfield and Fox mention in their column, Millennials are eager to connect and to collaborate. I urge you to feature voices from across generations, allowing association professionals of all ages the opportunity to be enriched by one another.

I certainly agree with Brynn that Associations Now (and other ASAE & The Center publications) should feature writers from all generations. As an editor, I want to encourage a richness of dialogue and content that’s only possible when writers come from all walks of life. Dominance by a few generational groups (or ethnic groups, or socioeconomic groups …) immediately dilutes that richness, and keeps us from hearing things we need to hear to keep the association community cutting edge and relevant.

But at the same time, I always get nervous about the possibility of tokenism—picking authors like ingredients in a recipe, focusing more on who they are than what they have to say.

Clearly there’s a balance here, and it’s one that any editor is used to aiming for. But I’d be curious to hear what Acronym readers think. What ideas would you suggest for increasing the diversity of authors in an association publication (not just at ASAE & The Center, but at any association)? What about increasing the diversity of involvement in all decisions an association makes?

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January 31, 2007

Building an issue “commons”

I wasn't able to attend Great Ideas, but this morning I came across an idea that I thought was a great one. In the spirit of the week, I wanted to share:

For whatever reason, the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) has never been very involved in advocacy work. But now they’re thinking of changing that. So far, it seems some of that consideration process has followed fairly traditional lines—the board has formed an Advocacy Work Group to research and develop recommendations on how the association should move forward. Nothing I haven’t seen a number of times.

But they’ve also launched the IABC Advocacy Commons, a blog that offers IABC members a chance to hear what’s going on as it happens and provide input through the process. (Nonmembers can read and post as well.) According to the blog’s “About” page, “Discussions will center around ways to promote the visibility, vitality and value of the communication profession to non-communication audiences as well as how IABC and its members can address a broad spectrum of social, economic, ethical and professional issues.”

What a smart thing to do! I've observed a number of work groups established to discuss a particular issue and report back to an association board. My experience has always been that input from the general membership is requested—perhaps via e-mail, a newsletter article, and the association website—and some is received, but the comments don’t tend to directly address the information that the work group has on hand as it makes decisions. Why not post information and resources as the work group considers them, and let members have the opportunity to make truly informed and relevant comments—and point out other resources or perspectives that a small working group may not have readily available?

Admittedly, not every member will take the time to read or post on such a blog, but I would think that this kind of open and more transparent process would generate goodwill and buy-in among members with a strong interest in the issue at hand … and they’re the ones most likely to be vocal if they disagree with the final decisions of a task force.

I hope IABC’s Advocacy Commons is a great success. I look forward to seeing how their conversation progresses.

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November 15, 2006

What's good for economies is good for governance

A more exhaustive companion to Mapping the Future of Your Association is Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat. Exhaustive couldn't be a more appropriate word to describe it, because at nearly 600 pages, this marathon of nonfiction delves deeply into trends that are shaping our global community. I'm in the home stretch to finish this book in the next couple of days, but I had an interesting revelation about a similarity between economies and governance after finishing up a chapter last night:

Being open is good for both.

Economic protectionism actually has the opposite effect it intends to produce, but open economies engender trust in foreign investors. While both countries previously manipulated their currencies and erected barriers to trade, Friedman argues that the opening of the Indian and Chinese economies in the past 30 years has rushed these two nations on to the global stage. It has happened in a matter of just a few decades because, thanks primarily to technology, the world is getting flatter by the minute.

As I read those passages, I couldn't help but think about a discussion I had in a virtual community early this year about the importance of transparency. The Scrutiny trend, identified in Mapping the Future of Your Association, prompted many participants in the discussion to conclude that mere compliance with public disclosure laws was no longer good enough. Full disclosure, or extreme openness, is becoming the norm. In other words, an open economy yields a higher GDP; an open governance structure yields a more trusting membership. A membership that trusts is a membership that engages. And don't we all want engaged members?

What does open governance mean to you? One association allows any member to nominate himself, herself, or another person for the board of directors right over the Internet. Another discloses all the "perks" given to its board members. Still another publishes its audited financial statements in its magazine. And yet another publishes its full 990 just two clicks from its home page.

What does your association need to expose to the daylight this year? Don't presume to know the answer. If you're brave enough, ask some members, "Is there anything you don't understand about how we operate?" Ask a volunteer, "As someone who knows the ropes, what are some things we don't communicate about so well?" The answers to these questions will help you figure out where you need open up.

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