Four Tips for Strategy-Setting That Matters

Boards need to operate at a high level, but airy, general strategies don't help direct an association. One expert shares some advice for keeping the balance.

Keep ’em out of the weeds. That may be the most repeated mantra to CEOs about working with their boards. The board sets the strategy, and the staff implements it. Don’t let a group of busy, smart professionals spend their precious time as volunteer leaders squabbling over small stuff like software-vendor selection and signage at the next annual conference.

This is good advice, but it isn’t always clear whether you’re in the weeds or not—and sometimes there’s value in the board getting better educated about operations to better think strategically. Association consultant Meredith Low discussed this blurry line in a blog post earlier this month titled “Strategy Is Not Management.”

You don’t want to have strategies that just sound like missions.

Boards indeed do set strategy, Low writes, but they also often run the risk of coming up with strategies that are so vague as to do little to direct the organization. “Technical management terms [like ‘optimize’ and ‘efficiency’] are often easy to throw around,” she writes. “The problem is, if you implement without being strategically explicit about what this kind of language really means, the board has given staff the right to decide that for themselves. It’s handing off strategic decisions to the staff level, with all the confusion, stress, and misdirection of resources that that can entail.”

You don’t want vague, hand-wave-y strategies from your board. But you don’t want them mucking in operations either. So how do you strike the appropriate balance? I spoke with Low last week on this point. Below are some of her thoughts.

1. Strategies aren’t ground-level, but they’re not in outer space, either. “You don’t want to have strategies that just sound like missions,” she says. “I was just looking at a client’s past strategic plan, and they say their strategies were ‘education’ and ‘advocacy.’ Those are not strategies. Those don’t represent choices…. There are different kinds of strategic choices around education, and that’s the challenge. I think that if it’s really high-level, if it could apply to any organization or any association, it’s probably not specific enough.”

2. Make time to discuss what the strategy might look like if implemented. Jumping right from strategy-setting to implementation means leaders can miss some pitfalls, and an open discussion can surface issues. “I think it’s an often-skipped step,” Low says. “A lot of associations seem to set fairly high-level strategies, and then they jump straight to operational planning for the next year…. In between that is where you say, ‘Let’s talk about what these strategies actually mean. Let’s talk about how and when we’re going to make these strategies really happen.’” That’s not a license for the board to get into those dreaded weeds, but to think about the tactics the association can use to fulfill its goals.

3. Metrics matter. By better defining its goals, Low says, the board has a concrete statement to revisit to determine if the strategy was successful. Better still, the board can think about what kinds of metrics would help make that determination. “If you’ve decided that that you have a strategic goal that has to do with catapulting the public profile of the industry, then you should set some metrics about what that looks like,” she says. “Are you going to measure that by media mentions? Are you going to measure that by getting invited to certain meetings, or that the government doesn’t make certain decisions without you?”

4. Be careful about putting your thumb on the scale. CEOs, because they likely interact more closely with staff and a wider range of the association’s members and stakeholders, can be inclined to feel they have a better sense of where a strategy discussion ought to go. But the CEO is better off presenting the information the board needs for making decisions than trying to steer it. “The thing that I like about a good strategy process is it tends to surface and make discussable a lot of issues that are otherwise subterranean in organizations,” Low says. “Most processes often force things underground even further. One thing about a CEO and a good strategy process is it becomes less about what they want to do and more about what’s actually going to work for the collective good.”

Ultimately, though, the CEO is charged with keeping the strategic conversation from being so vague as to become meaningless. “If things are vague, then you can claim anything as a success,” Low says. “On the other hand, if things are vague, if the board starts poking at it and asking, ‘Well, really is this getting us where we need to go?’ Then it can be hard to defend what you’re doing.”

What do you do as a staff leader to help your board members balance strategic discussion and an awareness of operations? Share your experiences in the comments.


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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