A Small-Scale Approach to Big-Picture Strategy

By / Oct 21, 2013 (iStock/Thinkstock)

How do you get a board to talk strategy? The answer may be as simple as that—start talking strategy.

“The board isn’t thinking strategically”—it’s a common enough lament at associations. Plenty of time and ink (real and digital) gets spilled explaining how to get past that problem. (Naturally, Associations Now has done some of that spilling.)

The Institute of Hazardous Materials Management is a useful example, I think, of a solution that’s working. Its fix is remarkably simple, but there’s some interestingly complicated maneuvering going on behind it.

 “As you manage more, more management is entrusted to you, and then you are able to move into that leadership role.”

When Jeffrey H. Greenwald, P.E., CAE, took over as executive director at IHMM in January 2011, he’d inherited a board that he characterizes as thinking almost entirely in operational terms. The association’s chief focus is managing a certification for hazmat professionals, and there had been little effort to expand its scope. Its nine-person board is made of experts in the field, but not necessarily business leaders, so it wasn’t particularly limber at organizational stewardship. “They’re credential leaders, but not leaders of companies,” as Greenwald puts it.

To get the board to engage in more big-picture thinking, Greenwald (with the help of a consultant) established a new routine for the board: At each meeting board members would engage in a discussion of what good governance is, then poll itself on how successful IHMM is at it. The board based its conversations around Boardsource’s “12 Principles of Governance That Power Exceptional Boards” [PDF]. Each of IHMM’s four board meetings this year opened (or will open) with a discussion on the poll results and a conversation about what needs improving.

Sample poll questions included: “The Board used the Institute’s mission and values to drive decisions,” “The Board devoted sufficient time to strategic issues,” “The board ensures an effective strategic planning process is in place.”

Time-consuming? Repetitive? To the contrary, Greenwald says, it’s helped the board better concentrate its efforts on big-picture stuff. “We’ve had some very good interactions, not just in terms of the assessments,” he says. “I love the fact that we are constantly doing and hearing about good governance. … It’s allowed them to be more amenable to new ideas as well.”

Among those new ideas: Last month IHMM has made its first foray into government relations, hiring a lobbyist to propose clarifications to legislation that supports members of the military entering the civilian workforce.  It’s a small step, but one that can potentially expand IHMM’s reach. “We’d never done any kind of lobbying or public sector outreach,” Greenwald says. “We’re now doing that and we’re interested in that.”

Managing Before Leading

That’s the simple lesson: If you want your board to think and talk strategically, then think and talk strategically. Make it an agenda item. Make it the first agenda item.

But talking with Greenwald, I was struck by an interesting irony. In order to help the board get from an operational to a strategic mindset, he had to do pretty much the opposite with himself: To better lead, he had to focus on management.

“There’s a management-leadership continuum, where as you manage more, more management is entrusted to you, and then you are able to move into that leadership role,” Greenwald says. So when he came aboard at IHMM, he and his staff focused on the small stuff: Scheduling check-in calls with the chair, ensuring meeting materials got out on schedule, keeping everything in order at headquarters. “When they hired me they wanted to make sure the trains ran on time,” he says. “I’ve shown them that our staff can do that very well. Now they feel more comfortable about having strategic discussions.”

There are a variety of ways to establish yourself as a leader in a new environment, but for IHMM it made sense for Greenwald to focus on more modest goals—in part because it sent the message to the board that it didn’t need to hash out operational issues, because the staff was on top of it. Once that was settled, Greenwald could guide them toward more ambitious thinking. “It will lead to things that are really hard to do, but I think all executives know that you have to do them,” Greenwald says.

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. More »


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