Leigh Wintz, FASAE, CAE
Leigh Wintz, FASAE, CAE, is principal consultant emeritus with Tecker International, LLC, and was an association CEO for 25 years.
Good governance depends on your leaders’ ability to Integrate strategic planning and thinking. And good strategic planning depends on the right process and preparation. Avoid these common pitfalls to ensure that your next foray into strategic planning results in long-term success.
How a CEO or executive director approaches the process of creating or revising the association’s strategic plan speaks volumes about the relationship between board and staff and can also predict how successful implementation will be. Seemingly small blunders can inhibit what should be a dynamic and interactive process that builds a solid framework for governance excellence. Here are 10 ways that association CEOs inadvertently sabotage the process:
1. You try to do it yourself. You will do a disservice to yourself, your staff, and your members if you can’t freely participate in this vital process of shaping the organization’s future. You have a unique perspective that might be lost if you try to facilitate the discussion rather than take your place as a full participant. While you might save money in the short term, this approach makes it difficult to get a good result.
2. You turn the process over to someone on staff. CEOs are busy people, but neither the board nor the staff will think strategic planning is an important endeavor if you don’t prioritize it. CEOs may try to hand over the project to a single person on staff. It’s OK to get staff support for logistics and communication, but be wary of creating a perception that you are delegating your leadership role to someone else on your team.
3. You allow the board to delegate strategic planning. Involve the entire board of directors in setting the organization’s direction. After all, it’s one of their major responsibilities and should not be delegated to staff or a governance committee. If your bylaws establish an officer or a committee as “responsible” for strategic planning, be sure that you engage the whole board in understanding, as well as approving, the final plan.
4. You don’t allow adequate time for planning. You cannot expect to create a new strategic plan in a half-day session tacked onto an existing board meeting. An annual review and update can usually be done in a half-day if you really do it annually before preparing the budget. But for full-blown strategic planning, plan to devote at least two days every three to five years to take a hard look at your mission, vision, and long-term goals. Also, don’t overwork your board members in a single session. Productive thinking typically wanes after about nine hours of work.
Seemingly small blunders can inhibit what should be a dynamic and interactive process that builds a solid framework for governance excellence.
5. You ignore room set or milieu. For strategic planning to be interactive, the environment has to be right. If you hold your board meetings in a windowless room with fixed tables or in a hollow square, you’ll stifle engagement. The same goes for a board retreat in a gorgeous setting where no one gets to enjoy the scenery. A good rule of thumb is to work at round tables in groups of four to seven people. Each group should have its own easel-backed flip chart and markers to share ideas. Let the facilitator know about meal and break times in advance, but be flexible. Also, avoid work during meal or coffee breaks. People need a mental break and time to tend to their other responsibilities.
6. You fail to budget adequately. Plan for travel and lodging expenses for both board members and staff, and don’t forget to budget for appropriate meeting space and audiovisual equipment, such as projectors, screens, and flip charts. (There’s still no better, more affordable technology for on-the-spot idea sharing than large sheets of paper stuck to the walls with masking tape.)
7. You over direct the facilitator. If you hired a professional—and did a good job vetting the person and determined they were a good fit for your group—then let them do their job. They likely explained the process they would use before you hired them, so don’t try to reinvent the wheel once you get started. Respect the process and trust that skilled facilitators can handle almost any situation.
8. You fail to provide requested documents for review in advance. As part of getting to know your association, a facilitator will ask you for certain documents. Some of these may be sensitive. If you require an assurance of confidentiality, don’t hesitate to ask, but don’t ignore the request. You want the facilitator to have all the information needed to prepare well.
9. You exclude senior staff. If your senior staff members don’t attend board meetings or strategic planning sessions, you might want to rethink that policy. It’s even worse if you invite them to attend but don’t explain their role or use them simply as meeting scribes. This decision is often driven by budget, but failing to include key members of your team who will be charged with carrying out the strategic plan is penny wise and pound foolish.
10. You neglect to set up monitoring and oversight mechanisms. I have seen a good process result in a great long-range strategic plan, but then the CEO fails to integrate the strategies into the annual operating plan and shortchanges resources in the operating budget. Good dashboards are available that can help boards monitor performance against a strategic plan, but they are rarely, if ever, selected or developed at the same session where the plan was developed. It’s up to the CEO to give board members the tools they need to practice this oversight.