How CEOs Can Help Make Boards Strategic

Disrupting the pathway to board service has complicated boards' understanding of strategy. That's created a leadership gap that CEOs are well-equipped to fill.

If you ever find yourself chatting with an association CEO and the conversation hits a lull, the fix is easy: Just ask, “How’s your board?”

I’ll bet that the exec—assuming he or she doesn’t immediately bolt from the room—will likely deliver some variation on how the board has struggled with thinking strategically. At the very least, the CEO has some idea of what kind of strategic focus the organization ought to be striving for. In my feature for Associations Now on encouraging strategic thinking, I found no shortage of executives who’ve had strategy at the top of their personal agendas.

Board members today are not universally prepared in a consistent way.

That doesn’t mean everybody agrees on an effective approach to strategic thinking is, or even the proper definition of “strategy.” That may be due in part to the way that the volunteer structures for associations have been disrupted in recent years. Associations have made the path to a board seat easier, recognizing that a lot of potential board talent—especially younger volunteers—are impatient with the kind of wait-your-turn ladder climbing can that keep people striving for a decade for a spot. But that means members can arrive less schooled in the nature of board work.

“I think a lot of younger people on boards right now may not have had a lot of experience on other boards, so they may come to a board with less of a sense of what their role is,” governance consultant Jean S. Frankel told me.  “Another thing is that I’m sensing a lot of associations are eliminating chapter structures or regional structures. In the past those were a good way to orient boards towards some kind of a strategic focus. I wouldn’t say they’re ill-prepared. But let’s just say they’re not universally prepared in a consistent way.”

As restrictive as the old leadership-ladder apparatus may have been, it had the virtue of serving as a training ground for leadership talent. Lacking that, there’s increased pressure for the executives themselves to take on the job of building strategic boards. That can involve thinking less in terms of volunteer experience than in terms of what skill sets the board needs. Joel Albizo, FASAE, CAE, CEO of the Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards, told me that when the organization was overhauling its strategy about ten years ago, it looked to ensure that incoming board members were a fit for that plan.

“We were really deliberate about bringing in the right people, people that I thought would be compatible and people that I thought would get us a good foundation,” he says. “We worked on building those key competencies of looking at data, developing an environmental scanning function, looking externally, outside the organization [for ideas].”

Members can be trained in those skill sets, even if they expect to rise up quickly: In the feature, I write about how the National Society for Histotechnology has been creating a cohort of future leaders who are fast-tracked to engage with the organization. That’s designed to engage with younger members who have different expectations of volunteer and governance work.

“I think as executives it falls on us on us to provide the framework so that they feel comfortable,” says NSH CEO Sharon H. Kneebone, CAE. “Gen X-ers and millennials don’t want to have to follow the path that the Boomer laid out. They want to come in at oblique angles. They’ll look at the opportunities and say, ‘I have skills here’ or ‘I want to expand skills there.’ We need to be more flexible and let those people have those opportunities, and get involved in providing the frameworks. Because if we don’t, they’re going to go somewhere else.”

And once the CEO has highlighted the virtues of strategic thinking, it’s easier for the board to claim it for themselves. After CLARB’s retooling process, Albizo says, “the board developed a strong culture such that when something is not strategic, they react,” he says. “The culture of the board becomes so strong that anything that is sort of outside that way of thinking and acting, it really sticks out, and it’s easy for them to self-correct.”

How have you as a CEO had to directly guide your boards to focus on strategy? Share your experiences in the comments.

(marchmeena29/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

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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