First Steps to Strategy for Board Members

Board members often come to their first meeting in need of help in building their strategic thinking skills. Firm guidance from the CEO can cultivate a focus on the long-term big picture and guide board members out of the operational weeds. But be prepared: This shift takes time and patience.

Board minutes are rarely as spine-tingling as a horror novel. But when Keith Darby, CAE, took the reins of the San Mateo County Medical Association in 2017, he felt a chill while reading old minutes to understand how the board spent its time.

“They read reports that were consent-calendar types of items: ‘Hey, we got two new members this month and we lost one member,’” Darby says. “There was never any conversation about direction. That kind of governance didn’t exist.”

Too often, it doesn’t. According to a 2017 Heidrick & Struggles/George Mason University survey, nearly a third (31 percent) of incoming association and nonprofit board members were not oriented in their organization’s strategic plan. And a 2016 survey from Concord Leadership Group reported that 29 percent of nonprofits don’t have a strategic plan at all.

That has plenty of negative consequences: Un-strategic boards drift toward meddling in operational work best left to staff or committees, or they miss headwinds affecting their industry because they were stuck on the cost of a new copier. Such boards can be redirected, leaders and governance experts say. But, as Darby and others have learned, guiding this shift requires patience, persistence, and assistance from a few board champions.

A Level Playing Field

The current dearth of strategic thinking may be in part the result of a positive change in the nonprofit sector. Associations are recognizing that the old-fashioned path to board leadership—members toiling for years in committee and other volunteer roles before landing a board seat—alienated many talented and younger members.

Disrupting the process has diversified boards, says governance consultant Jean S. Frankel, founder of Ideas for Action, but it also creates boards with different levels of comfort and experience with strategic thinking. Associations that have dismantled their chapter structures have exacerbated the problem.

“I’m certainly not saying that [change is] a bad thing, but I think those are all traditional ways for people to get oriented and for the association to create a pipeline where members had a sense of what their roles were,” Frankel says. With new paths to leadership, board members “are not universally prepared in a consistent way, in a way that the people were when they came up through a more formal structure.”

That puts more pressure on CEOs to better orient their boards and to catch them when they drift toward those infamous weeds. But orientation needn’t be a rigorous education process so much as a shift in mindset, says Gary A. LaBranche, FASAE, CAE, president and CEO of the National Investor Relations Institute (NIRI) and author of The Association CEO Succession Toolkit.

“I try to get them involved in a strategic thinking at orientation by asking them to engage in conversation on critical questions about the profession that are not easily answered with a yes or no,” he says. “They’re questions that require conversation and dialogue and debate, questions that are meant to get them out of what they might have thought that they were getting into, which is looking at the books and oversight of the programs.”

For Darby, that process began with one-on-one conversations with each board member on the theme of sustainability for the medical profession and how the board might address it. “I always use the analogy that if we start in California, and we’re going to drive to New York, we want to plot that out,” he says. “If we go off-course, that could be a variance, but eventually we want to end up in New York.”

During those discussions, Darby says, he uncovered board members who weren’t averse to or unschooled in strategy, but who felt such conversations weren’t encouraged.

“I started to get a feel for why they were feeling disenfranchised,” he says. “And it was amazing to see that almost everybody said, ‘I just feel like no one ever asks me for my opinion.’”

Constant Conversation

Five years ago, Carey Goryl, CAE, became executive director of the Association of Staff Physician Recruiters (ASPR), inheriting a board that she says had little strategic focus. “They were completely operational,” she says. “They talked about being strategic. It was in their language. But it wasn’t in their behavior.”

Goryl’s approach was to consistently steer conversations in strategy—gently, but unfailingly.

“As an executive, I can’t just impose the right way to do things on a group. That isn’t good change management,” she says. “But I used every opportunity—sometimes committee by committee, sometimes board decision by board decision—to reflect back what they said. They said they wanted to be a strategic governing board, so I would ask, ‘Is how we’re now currently making this decision, is that how a strategic governing board would approach it?’”

To help with that steering, staff executives need a strategy champion on the board to make the case to fellow members. Frank Gallagher, ASPR’s current board chair, recalls a governance structure so dysfunctional that he walked out of one volunteer meeting 10 years ago uncertain of who were board members, staff, or volunteers. Now wrapping up his second year as board chair, he says he sees his job as echoing Goryl, regularly pressing board members individually and collectively to focus on strategic issues.

“A big part of my role is setting that as a priority,” he says. “I tell people at the beginning of almost every board meeting, every time we have conversations, they don’t need my permission to think differently. Some of our day jobs are very transactional in nature, so sometimes we have to do a reset and make sure that we all have our big-picture hats on.”

LaBranche notes that some of this nudging can also be done indirectly, via board self-assessments. After every NIRI board meeting, LaBranche sends a survey of nearly two dozen questions designed to emphasize strategic direction. (See “A Look in the Mirror,” page 42.)

“When they look at these questions, they’re seeing and reinforcing and reflecting on what their board mindset should be,” he says.

New Pipelines

Making strategy-focused changes sustainable, though, doesn’t just require attention to the current board. It also means thinking about grooming the next generation of board leaders.

As part of a recent governance overhaul, the National Society for Histotechnology has begun to develop a leadership academy that will train emerging leaders in the association’s governance, giving a cohort of members access to the association’s conferences, committee meetings, and advocacy events.

“The idea and the intent is to start to identify future leaders and give them training, give them exposure to the membership,” says NSH CEO Sharon H. Kneebone, CAE. “It’s exposing people to leadership opportunities and governance opportunities within the organization much more early in their career.”

But the effort doesn’t necessarily have to be targeted—indeed, strategic boards can use their work as an opportunity to engage the entire membership, Frankel suggests. Strategic-plan reviews can invite members at all levels to participate, building awareness of what a strategic board looks like.

“If we are able to bring folks together and let them in on some of the strategic conversations that are going on at the national level, get them oriented toward thinking that way, helping them understand that that is the job of a member leader at a national level—I think that will help ensure a pipeline of energized new voices,” she says.

(Mediaphotos/Getty Images)

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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