Board Smarts: Rescue Plan

Three steps to save a flailing board.

Each board has a different personality, so an enjoyable experience isn’t one-size- fits-all.

As colleagues at the Society of Actuaries, Joel Albizo, CAE, Cheryl Enderlein, CAE, and Larry Robertson, CAE, often discussed ways to improve board effectiveness. “We’ve all been in meetings that lean too much toward operations, and there’s very little thought about tomorrow,” says Albizo, now executive director of the Council of Landscape Architectural ­Registration Boards. Though the three colleagues have since moved to different associations, they’ve devised a three-step method to help ensure volunteer leaders get important work done—and enjoy doing it.

1. Develop a genuinely strategic intent.

Albizo says too many boards suffer from what he calls “tanning-booth satisfaction”: “You get together with your peers and you agree on a bunch of things and you move forward. It feels great but it wears off very, very fast.” The fix: Start showing board members how they’re using their time together, then work to keep operational discussions to a minimum. According to Enderlein, assistant director of volunteer and leadership services at the American Geophysical Union (AGU), a good breakdown is 60 percent strategy, 30 percent ongoing organizational work, and 10 percent operational discussions.

2. Create a good governance process.

Boards can’t deliver their best strategic thinking if they’re not sure what to expect out of their meetings or if new items get crammed onto the agenda at the last minute. “We [at AGU] have a process that’s really well-defined,” says Enderlein. “Everybody can easily figure out when their board materials are due anytime between now and the end of 2014.” Enderlein herself does her bit as a board liaison. “I serve as a gatekeeper,” she says. “There are certain things that won’t make it on our board agenda, because they just don’t rise to that level.”

3. Recognize that a good time makes for good strategy.

“There has to be some type of return on engagement for people who invest their time, their talent, their energies for the betterment of the profession,” says Robertson, senior director of human capital and innovation at the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy. “Part of what they should expect in return is that when they come together, they have an enjoyable experience.” Each board has a different personality, so an “enjoyable experience” isn’t one-size-fits-all. But the best excursions are focused on opportunities for the board members to get to know each other at length in an environment that raises their energy level. It doesn’t have to involve hitting the rapids, but a whitewater trip did recently work for Albizo’s board.

“It helped me recognize that people are people,” he says. “They like to be in a new place and they appreciate being around other people.”


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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