How to Get a Board Past Its Fear of Change

Association leaders can find plenty of excuses to stick with the safe and familiar. Holly Duckworth, CAE, has a few ideas on how to shake things up.

“Expanded threats are attacking the core of why, how, and what associations are founded to do,” writes Holly Duckworth, CMP, CAE, in her new book, Ctrl+Alt+Believe: Reboot Your Association for Success. Among the reasons she cites: competition from the internet, diminished volunteer time, struggles with clarifying your organization’s mission. You doubtless can list a few more things that are keeping you up at night.

But though Duckworth, CEO of Leadership Solutions International, paints a somewhat frightening picture of an association’s challenges, one of her central arguments is that association leaders and boards succeed only once they get past their fear. How to do that? In the book she discusses stoking a conversation about the organization’s purpose (a subject this blog took on recently), challenging leaders to ask why the organization behaves the way it does, and experiment much more than it’s used to.

Simple solutions, perhaps, but ones that are notoriously hard to execute. Duckworth answered a few questions about her approach to such sticky wickets below.

Leaders must ask why? as the galvanizing force behind every decision.

A running theme in your book is boards’ fear of change. “Organizations die of fear,” as you write. Is there a way that organizations can “test” for fear in advance via the nominating process? Or is there something about the structure of boards that encourages it?

Fear of change or “reboot” in organizations has a micro and macro component. “Micro” meaning that each individual board member will naturally have a little tentativeness leading an organization. The “macro” being that together they may collectively create fear; getting to know the people on the board, moving closer to the mission of the organization and rules of governing. Running a board/organization forces people to look at their strengths, weaknesses, and what they contribute. Until we embrace that individual and collective fear as a positive catalyst for change we may experience stagnant organizations. A test for fear is not as valuable as simply acknowledging fear’s existence.

You recommend that the organization spend time distilling its mission statement into six words. Why is this valuable—that is, how can it help the board be more strategic?

You can determine the success of any organization by asking its leaders what the vision/mission of the organization is. I’ve been asking that question on stages for the past five years. Less than one percent of any audience can answer that question. In most cases nobody in the room can answer that question.

I use the six-word vision statement as a guideline to direct leaders to shorten the vision/mission statement to something that inspires. Your vision/mission needs to be a statement you and your leadership can memorize with your head. And memorize with your heart, meaning you can have each leader articulate what the vision/mission means to them in their own words.

I choose intentionally to use vision/mission together. We can debate all day long what a vision is, what a mission is and if you need one or both. What I know is 100 percent true is that the debate doesn’t matter if nobody is reading and using the vision/mission each and every day as a guiding and inspiring principle.

You write that “as a board member and leader, you must be willing to continuously ask, why?” It’s a good question, of course, but one that can also sow discord. Are there ways of asking “why?” repeatedly that can get to the heart of an issue without being divisive?

Leaders must ask “why?” as the galvanizing force behind every decision. The answer to that why must bring the association/organization closer to actualizing its vision and mission. I think “why?” as a question is only divisive when there are multiple visions of where the organization is going.

One suggestion you have for organizations to shake off the dust is to beta-test new ideas. To make them successful (or identify them as unsuccessful), what kind of structure should a beta test have? Should you set distinct time limits on them? Definitions for success? When do you pull the plug?

Build a framework that serves the needs of your membership. A beta project could be an initial alternate solution that shifts the culture of your association. For example: For one year, set aside a certain dollar amount for a new/beta project and a certain number of volunteer hours. You pull the plug on a beta project at the agreed upon date/time based on the initial beta project goals and objectives. At that time, you can also decide if you want to continue to “plug in” the project. We do not give up the annual golf tournament forever; we might “beta test” for one year a mini-golf tournament. At the end of that you easefully and effortlessly evaluate. Did this work, did it not work, do we do it again?

In a beta project, you set a deadline to in your words “pull the plug” at the beginning rather than the typical association outlook that assumes a project goes on forever. Assume the project has an end and “re-plug” in the beta project only if/when it works in a way that exceeds the needs and desires of your members.

In one chapter, you list a few potentially toxic board personalities—passive leaders, demanding leaders, etc. Can those personality type change within the board role, or must the CEO and other board members work around them? How can you make them a valuable part of the strategic process, instead of a roadblock?

The dynamic nature of new leaders flowing in and out of an association absolutely sets up an organization to have ongoing personality type changes. The key here is to not set an organizational belief that says X personality will only be here in the organization one month, three years, or however long you think they will be in service, then try to wait it out. When you do that, you set in motion a chain of other leaders who will evacuate your board if they do not agree with personality X.

I use the word “one-ness” a lot. In the case of board personalities we must go back to the one thing that connects us all together. In the case of business, that is the vision/mission. Galvanize personalities around that one-ness.


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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