Defining Board Competencies

Board-selection June 20, 2018

An association board is responsible for shaping the mission, character, and future of its organization. ASAE Foundation research shows that looking for key competencies in prospective board members helps ensure that the most qualified people undertake these important roles.

What if you could create a selection process that ensures a successful board? As part of the ASAE Foundation’s body of research on governance, one study is digging into effective board selection practices, including the nomination, election, and selection processes. As part of the first phase of the study, “Board Member Competencies and Selection: Helping Associations Build a Stronger Board,” researchers Mark Engle, CAE, and Will Brown, Ph.D., identified a set of key competencies that are fundamental to board success.

The core competencies fall into in five categories: group skills, interpersonal skills, personal leadership skills, technical skills, and personal attributes. While every association may prioritize a different set of traits, the study suggests that establishing needed characteristics and capabilities is a critical early step to populating an effective board.

Group skills. These are the assets of team-oriented individuals. People with this competency are more inclined to solve problems as a group. They will prioritize the best interests of the board, organization, and members over individual priorities, such as pet projects and personal advancement. Boards made up of team-oriented individuals can be more adaptable, creative, and productive than boards comprising more individually focused members.

Boards made up of team-oriented individuals can be more adaptable, creative, and productive.

Interpersonal skills. These include communication, relational, influence, and reputation competencies: 

  • Board members with good communication skills are adept at disseminating their expertise and opinions and receiving differing opinions from their fellow members.
  • Relationship-building contributes to board cohesion and effectiveness. A board with members who have high relational competency are more likely to tap in to the group’s collective abilities. Board members who are skilled at forging and maintaining relationships can also connect the organization with stakeholders who can advance their mission.
  • Influence is described as three elements of social power: personal, expert, and positional. Board members with these strengths are comfortable challenging the decisions and performance of management when there is a need to change the status quo.
  • When individual members of a board have a positive reputation, the board conveys legitimacy to members and the public.

Personal leadership skills. Board members should be able to provide both strategic and innovative thought leadership. Strategic thinking involves analyzing issues and making decisions that support the organization’s overarching mission. Board members with the capacity for innovative thinking make new ideas and solutions possible.

Technical skills. To make informed decisions, individual board members need deep knowledge about both the field and the organization. Collectively, the board should represent a variety of life experiences, which improves overall efficiency and reduces the likelihood of significant knowledge gaps.

Personal attributes. These include commitment, integrity, and capacity:

  • When board members are committed because they are emotionally invested in an organization, the board is likely to be more effective.
  • Personal integrity fosters an environment of trust and accountability within the board.
  • No matter how great a fit in other ways, if a board member doesn’t have the time to contribute fully to the work of the board, he or she will not be the best asset to the organization.

There is no way to guarantee an effective board, and establishing desired competencies is just one component of a thorough board selection process. But this step has advantages: It can focus the search and, depending on the nomination process, potentially reduce the number of applicants. As a step in a deliberate selection process, it allows leaders to actively solicit top talent with strengths and skills that will move the organization toward its goals.