Is Your Board Ready for a Crisis?

It's not easy to expect the unexpected---especially when you have 30 volunteer leaders with different opinions and experiences. One association's experience suggests a path to success.

How well-prepared are boards for surprises? Bad news coverage, social-media flareups, questionable legislation?

If we’re being honest with ourselves, the answer is likely not much at all. Boards meet so intermittently, and focus so much on strategic issues (one hopes), that training them in crisis management is a relatively low priority.

But that doesn’t mean they can’t get up to speed quickly. I’ve thought about this in the context of my cover story in the latest Associations Now magazine, about how a pair of associations responded to statewide legislation that prompted them to contemplate moving or cancelling their meetings. For the American Counseling Association, Tennessee legislation that countered the profession’s code of ethics moved ACA to consider moving its next conference out of Nashville; the American Public Transportation Association pondered moving a meeting out of Charlotte after North Carolina passed a law diminishing LGBT protections.

ACA left; APTA stayed. Both associations’ stories are worth reading about. But I want to focus on ACA’s case here, because it spotlights three lessons about how a strong relationship between a CEO, board chair, and board, can lead to an effective result.

Before anything else, listen. ACA has a large board—30 people—and getting all of them to get together on a conference call in an emergency was a challenge from the start. So executive director Richard Yep, FASAE, CAE, stressed the importance of making sure that once everyone was gathered that they didn’t feel pressed to make an immediate decision. “[ACA’s board president] said, ‘Look, we’re going to go around the room, although we’re on the phone, I want each of you to share where you are on this issue right now,’” Yep says. “‘Take two minutes, just tell us all, and nobody’s going to interrupt you. We’re just going to go around and find out where we’re all at.”

ACA’s board turned out to be quite split—the new law was a black eye for the profession, the consensus went, but what did leaving Nashville say to ACA members in Tennessee? Would they feel abandoned? For Yep, that conversation clarified the message it needed to be sending, regardless of whether it stayed or left. “Our job was to reassure those board members, as well as our folks in Tennessee, that what our goal is to send a message to the governor and to the legislature. We are not abandoning you. We still want to work on advocacy issues to repeal this law. We’re going to do whatever we can.”

Keep the conversation high-level. Abandoning a meeting is costly—there are penalties from the hotels and other venues, and that force majeure clause in your contracts likely won’t apply if the issue is a law that runs against your association’s mission. Every association will have to decide for itself what expense it can absorb. But ACA stressed keeping cost considerations out of the conversation, at least at first.

Yep recalls that the first board conversation deliberately avoided “how this is going to cost us. Let’s discuss the actual issue relative to our code of ethics being challenged.” For a group of counselors, it was more important to get the emotional tenor of the conversation right, Yep says. “Counselors move a lot on how somebody feels, what their emotions are, where they’re at. So [our board chair] did that. She still, in that first conversation, limited them to not necessarily talking about how much it would cost. We did eventually brief them on what the potential penalties might be and how much we have to scramble to get this done.”

Think about what your board needs next time. Every board has its own particular mix of interests and expertise—technology, finance, communications, and so forth. That’s a good thing. But ACA’s experience was a reminder to Yep that you can’t have too many discussions about the importance of strategic focus. “It struck me that when we were having those conversations with the board, some of them really spoke from a deep feeling of emotion and others spoke of it from the perspective of ‘Was this a good business decision?’ We need to get people on a level playing field relative to, ‘Here are your roles and responsibilities. This is a strategic plan. This is how it aligns with what we’re doing.’ What it says to me is I need to do a better job of making sure they understand those things.”

Likely no CEO could ever feel like he or she has done enough.

How have you helped your board guide your association through a crisis, and how do you prepare them for the next one? 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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