Board Smarts: Early Boarding

How to train leaders before they lead—an idea which the National Ground Water Association is putting into practice.

“It’s hard to find good board members” is a familiar complaint at associations. Kevin McCray, CAE, executive director of the National Ground Water Association, has discovered a more troubling sentiment beneath that refrain: It’s hard to find good board members who don’t harbor incorrect assumptions about board work. “One of the biggest mythologies was, ‘I’ve got to spend a lot of money to be a director,’ ” says McCray. To counter such thinking, and to help build a leadership ladder for NGWA, in 2000 he established the Director Candidates School. The experience is not as demanding as the name suggests: It’s a 60- to 90-minute session in which interested members can learn the basics of board work. Since it was established, it’s helped neutralize misinformation and improve members’ leadership skills.

One of the fundamental challenges was that most people didn’t really understand what the board service would be.

“It seemed to me that one of the fundamental challenges was that most people didn’t really understand what board service would be,” McCray says. “The idea was, ‘Well, let’s tell ’em. And let’s tell ’em in an orderly and consistent fashion, rather than through word of mouth.’ ”

The content of the program has changed somewhat in the past decade, McCray says, but the overall structure has remained consistent. He leads a discussion of the essentials of board service, with the assistance of two or three board members. “They can relate it peer-to-peer: ‘Here’s what my experience was,’ ” McCray says.

Board-staff relations is a key discussion point for participants, because most haven’t served on boards for organizations that have dedicated staff. So is time commitment. But the experience has successfully supported NGWA leadership: 18 of the 19 members of the association’s fiduciary board have participated in the program.

McCray has taken that success as a cue to grow: Last year he expanded the program from one session at NGWA’s annual conference to a second program, presented via webinar. Participation isn’t required to serve on the board, but it does send a message to the nominating committee. So does a pin each participant receives with the image of a ladder. “It’s a signal to NGWA board members that this is somebody who is interested in serving the association at a higher level,” he says.

The program also supports participants’ work as leaders in general. Past presidents, according to McCray, “say they had some of their best business years when they were actively engaged in their board service, because it caused them to be better managers of their time, and to delegate and trust in their employees.”


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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