Steer a Board Without Taking the Wheel

By: Therese Brown

How one association executive encourages her board to take its own initiative. [Titled "Smooth Operator" in the print edition.]

After 30 years of association management, I've learned that my role with the board is facilitation. I hold the map of the organization, guiding where it goes and getting everyone there safely. One of the key ways to do that is to bring out the best your board members have to offer. Here are some ways to make that happen.

  1. Know your board members as people. Business literature is full of systems for assessing and understanding different personalities. Whichever you use, learn as much as you can about your board members' individual talents and preferences. My goal is to ensure that each member feels like he or she has contributed constructively to the organization's work. The better I know each person, the better I can engage him or her.
  2. Encourage your critics. Every board needs them. But you also need to manage them. During divisive discussions, my job changes. I might provide relevant information, test assumptions, or ask questions to draw out concerns.
  3. Police hive mentality. Some board members are independent-minded, while others follow the lead of a trusted board chair. The latter often happens in small associations where boards meet for limited periods of time. I can contribute more to the discussion by challenging biases that come with groupthink and helping the board discuss appropriate questions.
  4. Be transparent. Especially about mistakes. Responses to mistakes indicate something about your board's risk tolerance. With greater transparency, a board may feel that it made the most well-informed decision possible, so a mistake becomes less about blame and more about evaluating where its thinking and process went wrong. Staff can help the board assess risk tolerance using tools like scenario planning.
  5. Offer perspective. Help the board understand where you are in the lifecycle of your association, and tailor its leadership appropriately. My association celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2010, but because it had gone through a significant change in 2005, it behaves more like a startup. We are in the early stages of developing products and services to engage our members as well as serve the broader community (and our members' customer base). It is crucial that the board press forward to find areas to grow and prosper. My job is to help keep pressing forward.

Therese Brown is executive director of the Association of Catholic Publishers in Ellicott City, Maryland. Email: [email protected]