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Associations Now

Call to Order: CEOs Dream Up Better Board Meetings

ASSOCIATIONS NOW, December 2008, Feature

By: Lisa Junker

If there was no such thing as a board meeting, would associations need to invent them? A group of association CEOs debates the good and bad of board meetings, and how to make them work.
Summary: What value is offered by board meetings, and how could they become invaluable to the success of associations? A group of CEOs debates.

If you get a group of CEOs together with a stopwatch and ask them to talk shop, you probably won't make it past the two-minute mark before someone mentions his or her board. Governance structures can confine CEOs, or they can support—even propel—them as they work toward the ongoing success of their organizations. So it makes sense that board governance is a frequent topic in CEO conversations.

Associations Now had the opportunity to listen in on one of these discussions earlier this year. A group of CEOs were asked to share their thoughts and ideas about how to "blow up" the typical board meeting, to re-create it to better serve both boards and associations. Here's what they had to say.

Associations Now: Let's start with a simple question: Why do we have board meetings?

Toni Samuel, CAE, American Society for Public Administration: I think, unfortunately, too often the focus is on the fact that it's required. Whereas the focus should be the meeting itself, why we're having it, the purpose, and the outcome you want.

"The problem is we take people who are successful in their industry, we put them around the board table, and suddenly we expect them to think strategically." —Philip Lesser, CAE

Mary Riemersma, CAE, California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists: I never think about it being required. It's to strategize and to plan and to make sure we're going down the right track.

Tim Sandos, National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals: I agree with both of you. The first reason is responsibilities such as budget, finance, management of the budget and assets, resources. Second is, of course, strategic planning because, ideally, you use a board for strategic and tactical thinking. What is the environment in the industry? Now, how do we take that environment and identify trends? Then, how do we position the organization to respond successfully to those trends?

To me, the key factors are the brainpower of the board members and their experience in the industry. Identify the trend early on and start to react to it, and you can better prepare your membership to be successful in the environment.

Philip Lesser, CAE, Bostrom: I agree with all of that, although too often that's not the case. Too often board time is wasted time, in which it's tactical and operational and boards spending their time on business, which is really not the highest and best use of our board members' time. In too many organizations the board is not making good use of our volunteer time. In too many organizations, the executive committee makes all of the decisions and the board rubber stamps it, and the reason the board is meeting is not so much because it's required by law but because it's always been done that way.

Bill Burns, CAE, Association for Play Therapy: Our national board has nine voting members and myself. We meet twice a year. The board does not approve the budget. We do not have an executive committee. We use the Policy Governance model, and the board only does three things. It scans the environment. It's always strategically focused. It focuses on organizational performance, which is my performance as the only direct report to the board, and it's always focused on ends policies or outcomes. But once we got those three focuses in place, then the board meeting started to make sense.

In answer to your specific question, though, of why we have board meetings, I think it is that periodic linkage between the membership through the board, to the management. So, I think that has to be held. We have to have board meetings, whether in teleconference or in face to face.

Is there anything you would say that you love about your board meetings?

Tim Sandos: I'll tell you what I love that comes out of a board meeting. It's when you really have thought leaders from different parts of the industry that can identify a trend and can talk about how they see it moving in that direction and how we can cooperate to be able to position ourselves successfully to them. There's nothing more exciting than to be on the front end of that trend. That's what a board should be used for. It's that critical thinking, that mind power.

Mary Riemersma: Maybe I'm weird, but I absolutely love board meetings. I think they're a lot of fun. We get involved in some very interesting dialogue among board members, and it's an opportunity to really flush things out and to really focus and develop an understanding of what it is we're going to be doing. You walk away feeling like you've accomplished a great amount. Everybody's very tired when they leave a board meeting, but everybody seems to feel that they're a part of the process, and they walk away feeling very energized.

Diane James, CAE, Women's Transportation Seminar: One of the things that's really been helpful in engaging our board in making those meetings really exciting and solidifying the relationship among the board members and the staff and the organization is developing good, sound knowledge pieces before the board meeting, which engaged everybody in asking the strategic questions so they don't come to the board table with just "I think this about that." They really have some data prepared, and they've worked through what we think we need to know so the conversation is productive. That has helped tremendously toward the board staying strategic because they see the qualitative difference in what they're talking about and how much more fun it is to come to meetings when you're not having these more specific operational conversations.

Philip Lesser: My own experience as a board member echoes what Mary was saying. As a staff person I always had—how should I say this delicately—a certain cynicism about my volunteers and the way they treated their experience. But I recall when I was asked to serve on a board the feeling I got of "My goodness, my peers want me to serve." And then the feeling I had when I attended a board meeting was exactly what Mary said. I felt energized.

I know the value and sense of engagement and bonding that board members come away with, and that is a tremendous asset to the organization.

What do you think leads to staff being cynical about board meetings?

Bill Burns: The further boards get from, as Mary said, talking strategically, the more they get into things they shouldn't be involved in. Then they walk out saying, "It wasn't very meaningful. All we did is this small stuff." I think we really need to engage our boards at a higher level, and if they set policies that create a corral for us to act freely in, then we don't need to meet that often. There's no reason to meet more than four times a year unless there's big things going on. Keep the focus high and meaningful.

Danika Davis, Northern California Human Resources Association: Our board is self-declared as strategic, and there is the talent capacity to be so. However, with that kind of time commitment being driven by a very small subset [of the board], we are actually getting folks who are willing to serve on the board who are far more junior than what we need to shape the association because senior people do not want to spend their time.

Successful people are used to accomplishing things. When they don't have a vehicle in which they can do that, they can become very disruptive or disillusioned with the organization.

Amy Lestition, CAE, Society of National Association Publications: We meet twice in person for only three hours each time, and then we meet for an hour conference call five other times. I'm not that cynical because the fun is in the prep work and laying the seeds before we even get to that meeting. We have such a short time frame. We never run over; we end right at that time. We have to get it done. It's a lot of working behind the scenes so when we come to that meeting we're actually passing stuff and we move forward.

Tim Sandos: I would say two things lead to cynicism. One, it's incompetent board members who co-opt the entire time of the meeting to ask why you spend the $1.50 for a pen at Office Depot when you could have got it for $0.75 at Costco. They take the discussion there, and what that does is it drives the very competent, very knowledgeable board members away from participation because they say, "This is not valuable. We have no time for this."

The second thing is, I have great cynicism for people who, again, go to self-interest rather than the organization's stated purpose and interest. We have a mission statement. This is what we've all agreed we were going to do, and they co-opt the meeting around things that are clearly of personal or organizational benefit. And I have no patience for that.

Diane James: I think one of the keys is that this is not an inbred skill. This is learned behavior: what they're going to focus on, what the agenda's going to cover, what kind of person is going to be recruited for the board based on the quality of the governance process.

There's an element in terms of where they are in their career and where they are in the industry and the perspective they have, but it's not the end all and be all. What's the criteria for board service? How do you bring them on? How do you educate them? How do you train them and then develop a culture that, as you said, Mary, dictates what they're going to talk about and how they're going to do that?

Philip Lesser: Danika said a few minutes ago that successful people are used to accomplishing results. Part of the problem we're hearing is we take successful people who are successful in their industry or profession, in one role, and as Diane said, this is learned behavior. We put them around the board table, and suddenly we expect them to think strategically. And strategic thinking is not normal. It is normal to suddenly revert to what they know how to do, which is solving problems and doing the micromanaging and the operational thinking.

But as Bill said a few minutes ago, if you get them out of that and they figure out a way to think strategically and come up with outcomes that impact the profession or the industry, they're much happier. Now, the question is, how do you move them there? Well, the way to move them there is to get them to understand the distinction between tactical and strategic. If you look at most strategic plans that most associations have, they'll say, "Our strategic initiative is to have an advocacy program." That's not strategic. That's a big tactic.

The things that we typically measure as success in associations, the number of members, the number of attendees, the number of hits, none of that stuff is strategic because it's not a measure of benefit to our members or their companies. Those are not measures of benefit, those are not outcomes, they're not strategic.

Now, it takes a while. But once they start understanding the distinction between what is tactical and what truly is a measure of a benefit and an outcome, then, suddenly, they're happier.

Imagine we had those people you've been talking about, people who want to be strategic and not be tactical. What would a board meeting be like if you had the right players around the table?

Toni Samuel: I think it's a little mixture of a meeting that's three hours and focused, and where the prep work done by staff or whomever is part of the agenda so that there's nothing else that goes on in that meeting except for what you prepared for and what you set on your agenda, and that there is an outcome. I think that would be very satisfactory to staff, as well as to board members.

But the most important thing for me is that the outcome of a board meeting ought to show that there is alignment between staff and leadership direction.

Mary Riemersma: Maybe this would be a nightmare, but I would like to see board meetings structured more like a regulatory body where there is ample opportunity for stakeholder input, or stakeholders are there and the board members can have that variety of input to make better informed choices. I think that might create greater value in some of the outcomes from the board meetings.

Janice LaChance, Special Libraries Association: To me, the best board meeting is one that demonstrates partnership between the volunteer leadership and staff—it's not us against them, or it's not a session filled with criticism of the staff but a true partnership and an alignment, as Toni has said.

The other piece for me is that my boards serve in an advisory capacity. I am not a member of their profession, so it's very important for me and the rest of the staff to hear their perspectives, what challenges they're facing, what opportunities they see out there on the horizon. That then helps us be strategic as we move forward together in meeting the needs of the membership.

Tim Sandos: Let's see. This is going to go in an article, right? My name is Phil Lesser.

Philip Lesser: Make it good.

Tim Sandos: If I were Tim Sandos, I might blow up the board meeting as we designed it now. I would definitely—we have started to move this, and it's worked well for us—get rid of committees, going to task forces that have a specific function, a start, middle, and an end. People who are very results driven resonate to that because they know we are going to do this much in this timeframe, and it is extremely successful.

I go back to "what" is them, "how" is me. You empower your executive and your staff to implement and do the work.

Diane James: I visualize it like what happens when I clean out my closets—taking everything out of the closet and having it completely empty and then trying to figure out what's the most important thing to have in it. If you think about the legal requirements, what are the baseline things that have to be there? Then you add in what's just essential, which starts with what are they passionate about, and what connects them to this organization that drives them to want to serve it and want to be at that engaged level? It's really about what's most important to them that the organization accomplish.

Danika Davis: As a career human resource practitioner, [I believe] we don't do nearly enough work on selecting the qualities that we're looking for.

Southwest Airlines' old VP of HR was asked a question one time: "How do you make all those people happy?" She said, "I don't know how. I have to hire happy people and give them a job." I think there's something in there around this concept of board service and that perhaps our old models, where it was longevity or producing actual work—many of those doers are not going to become strategic, regardless of how much training or definition work you give them.

Amy Lestition: Our board members are elected by the members, so I think oftentimes I'll go out and get people who I think are strategic and can lead the group to the next level. But the members might not vote for that. That's what I'm struggling with right now. Is this election process the best way? Should we have the nominating committee to really choose the people who can move it to the next level?

Diane James: The other thing that has bothered me about our sort of inherent structure is the equation of board service with high-level perks and a reward system that sort of elevates people into a differentiation from the rest of the membership and into an elite status that attracts the wrong people. I would just love to see that blown up and see if it's possible to reward people differently and recognize people differently. Maybe that would change the incentive system for who comes forward for what.

Danika Davis: I've had a heretical idea. We're a professional membership association, and I would like us to have a board structured like a corporate board. If you had a corporate board, you would not recruit 15 people with the same skill set and then expect them to have different perspectives in the way that you need when you're running a multimillion-dollar business.

I participate in two boards outside my association that give me a ton of insight into my business. And these are peer groups. Each of us represent a different subspecialty, and I am more likely to bring strategic thinking to those groups and say, "I'm thinking of doing this. What would that mean?" One guy's an attorney for bank mergers, and he often has a very fresh view on my marketing plan. He asks me very difficult questions because he thinks so differently than me.

We're pretty much out of time. Is there anything anyone wants to get out on the table? Something they want to blow up they didn't get a chance to during this discussion?

Toni Samuel: One thing I think didn't appear in this discussion: No one said that governance wasn't important. I think that probably needs to be stated because in all of our conversations I think we have acknowledged that in the operation of our business we want and need governance.

Lisa Junker, CAE, IOM, is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. Email:

Associations Now would like to thank all of the CEOs who participated in this discussion, including Bill Burns, Cedric Calhoun, Danika Davis, Diane James, Janice LaChance, Philip Lesser, Amy Lestition, Sheila Navis, Perry Phillips, Mary Riemersma, Toni Samuel, Tim Sandos, Gene Stein, and all the other CEOs in the CEO Lounge in San Diego who took the time to attend in whole or in part. All of you contributed to a great conversation.

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