A Faster Path to Better Boards

Volunteer leaders often start board service poorly oriented on governance. One expert is streamlining the process, highlighting the importance of simply getting along.

Becoming a board member is relatively straightforward at most associations. You demonstrate expertise in a profession, volunteer with the association that serves it, then make your way through the association’s particular governance pipeline to get a board seat.

Becoming a good, strategy-minded board member is often another matter, though. Boards don’t always come in with a solid grounding of the work they’re being asked to do, or how to do it. That can lead to divisiveness, inaction, and even outright toxicity. Last month I participated in an Association Forum of Chicagoland webinar on the topic, and much of the conversation turned on the importance of solid onboarding processes.

But as long as I’ve been covering associations, leaders have struggled to get their boards to fully grasp their responsibilities. Mark Engle, DM, FASAE, CAE, principal of Association Management Center (and who helps run ASAE’s Exceptional Boards program), has recently been trying to address that on two fronts. First, he’s been working on something close to a one-size-fits-all introductory video that walks board members through the basics of their duties. It’s not a video AMC shares publicly, but it does a fine job of clarifying the duties specific to boards—in under ten minutes.

Engle’s process distills governance down to three pillars—strategy, structure, and culture.

That brevity is a response to our ever-shortening attention spans, of course. But it also reflects an effort to boil board work down to governance essentials. “What’s the centerpiece that you alone as a board member are responsible for?” Engle says. “We need to be careful, or various things can really undo what a board is trying to achieve. That means having a mindset of asking what we’re doing with strategy, what you’re doing with structure, and what you’re doing with culture. That helps shape where the conversation goes.”

The emphasis on those three pillars of governance—strategy, structure, and culture—helps streamline the conversation during orientation. And when it comes to avoiding some of the toxicity that can infect boards, Engle stresses that culture can’t be talked about too much. Culture, he points out, simply means how a board gets its work done. But it also speaks to the roadblocks that keep a board from doing its best strategic work—interpersonal disagreements, lack of trust, influence poorly or unethically wielded.

To that end, the lion’s share of the questions that AMC uses in its board member self-assessment [PDF] deal with cultural matters. Among the traits board members are asked to rate themselves on: “I attend all board meetings—physically, mentally, and emotionally”; “I challenge issues and assumptions, not individuals”; “I am respectful of the opinions of other board members”; “I actively recruit new members and leaders.” Those matters can seem straightforward, like a board is setting a low bar for itself. But when those things don’t happen is when boards tend to go awry.

Building a healthy governance culture is an ongoing process [PDF], not an intermittent task to rescue you if you inherit the ‘board from hell,’ Nancy R. Axelrod wrote years back in an Association Management article that foregrounds the importance of culture. How association boards handle the culture piece will be as distinct as the pipelines they use to fill board seats. But however they handle culture will have a direct influence on how the association will handle strategy and leadership of the association as a whole.

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