The Governance Juggling Act

Successful associations need talented leaders. But how do you find it when your biggest problem is disengagement?

Your association needs talented leadership. It’s the only way your organization can move forward.

But what is “talent,” exactly?

Gilmore’s advice can feel nearly impossible to implement, the rough equivalent of changing a flat tire on a moving car.

Last month Nonprofit Quarterly ran an article by Thomas Gilmore addressing the question, titled “The Importance of Linking Leadership Succession, Strategy, and Governance.” That’s a long title, and the article itself is fairly dense. But in the way good articles do, it digs into the subject, exploring the difficulty  of identifying great leaders for an organization and making sure their abilities are aligned with both the present needs of the association and with where it sees itself going. Long essay short: Successful organizations support and cultivate innovative leaders for their boards and staffs who are great at strategic thinking, setting direction, and managing conflict.

“The optimal sequence,” Gilmore writes, “involves excellent, current governance, approving a strategy that informs the selection of a great leader who executes under their oversight, and leads strategic renewal as the environment demands.”

I can hear a few of you snickering. At the ASAE Invitational Forum on Leadership & Management earlier this year, a session on board size turned into a candid discussion about the prevalence of disengaged boards that are more likely to rubber-stamp the CEO’s work plan than have a high-level discussion about mission.

So yes, Gilmore’s advice can feel nearly impossible to implement, the rough equivalent of changing a flat tire on a moving car. And the problem isn’t just with boards, or with disengagement. Gilmore offers one of example of how a hard-charging university president wound up being a poor fit: “One innovative, newly-appointed president was deeply driving an effective strategy process, yet failed to pay enough attention to keeping the board’s support. He changed a member of his team without realizing the long-working alliance of this individual with his board. As his strategy work was nearing completion, he stepped down over ‘strategic differences in the direction of the university.'”

In a perfect world, every leaders is the association equivalent of (in tribute to the World Series) a five-tool player: a great-short term manager, a great long-term strategic thinker, a person with great interpersonal skills, someone who’s comfortable with risk, and a leader with sense of humility—that is, the understanding that the success of the organization rests not just on your shoulders but on those who will lead it years down the road. Gilmore quotes Digital Equipment Corporation founder Ken Olsen, who said, “I will accept no accolades until five years after I’m gone.”

Well, not totally humble: Olsen added, “I may avoid that by not going.” But you get the idea. So how much of that leadership talent can you realistically bring into your organizations, and what are you doing to cultivate it?

(Illustration by Ernie Smith)

Mark Athitakis

By 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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