Leading During a Pandemic: The Need for Steady Governance

There's no way to make an association crisis-proof, but good governance is key to resilience. One expert shares how to help boards maintain their focus.

Successful boards look for alignments with the needs of members and customers. But what are those needs during a time when economies and social norms have transformed? Successful boards consider environmental scans to establish broad strategic goals. But what if the environmental scan you conducted before your most recent five-year strategic plan no longer resembles the world you’re in?

In short, is it time to give your strategic plan another look?

The answer may be yes, but it’s important to tread carefully when it comes to such conversations, says governance consultant and former association CEO Robert Nelson, CAE. The urge to respond to a crisis can be so strong that many might overstep their boundaries—and forget that the strategic plan is designed to provide stability in moments like these.

“During a crisis there can be a tendency for boards or individual board members to want to jump in and fix things or make decisions that are in management’s realm,” Nelson wrote recently. And such leaps can make an association’s work needlessly complex.

In an interview last week, Nelson shared a few thoughts to consider before convening your board for an emergency strategy session.

A lot of people say, what does my board have to do differently? I think your board just needs to govern well.

Are you really talking about strategy, or panicking over tactics? A strategic plan that enumerates specific efforts for things like meeting formats and membership growth wasn’t truly a strategic plan to start with. “I believe we’ll find that there are organizations that really didn’t have strategies, they actually had tactical plans, and I think they will find that their quote-unquote plan will need to change significantly,” Nelson says. “That’s why it’s so important to have a strategy truly be a strategy, because then you can change the tactics from a staff level. You’ll see two sets of associations, those that had bad strategic plans having to make significant alterations, and those that have great strategies, and maybe having to tweak one out of four initiatives.”

Use the moment to reestablish your governance processes. Rogue board members making pronouncements about the one thing the association needs to do right now may be a sign that the board and CEO roles are not in alignment. A crisis is no excuse to disrupt proper relationships. “When we ask, ‘Do we really have a system that can withstand a crisis?’ That just means we’ve got a sound strategy,” he says. “But more than that, it means that we have a board that understands this is the board’s role, and this is the CEO’s role, and we have a board that’s constantly looking forward. A lot of people say, what does my board have to do differently? I think your board just needs to govern well.”

Cultivate one-on-one communication ahead of any big group meeting. The most successful associations, Nelson says, establish close conversations between the CEO and board that are casual but effective. “The CEO should be able to easily call up board members and say, ‘Look, I recognize that it’s my responsibility to make this decision on Topic A, and I’m not shirking my responsibility, but I’d love to get your insight to see what you think,’ and the board member will really give that,” he says. “But the board member realizes that in the end the CEO is going to make the decision on Topic A, B or C, because it’s their job. That’s the kind of communication we need and want.”

Don’t get waylaid by term-length conversations. Nelson says this can be a good time for association boards to take a look at their bylaws to make sure that they’re not outdated or overly restrictive. But if you’re going to make tweaks to term lengths for board members, make sure you’re doing it for the sake of what’s best for an association—not for the interests of a board chair who might be disappointed because COVID-19 means they can’t take the stage at an in-person meeting this year. “Being a chair is supposed to be about what’s best for the organization, not what’s best for Mike or Joe,” Nelson says. “I’ve heard conversations about these shifts, and most of the time it’s because the chair won’t be able to do the fun things they’d normally do because they’re tied to this crisis. But is that really sticking with your organization’s values?”

(Gajus/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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