Why a Better Board Culture Matters

A recent NACD report highlights the importance of solid norms and a cohesive culture on boards. A close look at your onboarding and orientation processes can help. 

Association boards had to learn to act quickly at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. And though the pandemic isn’t all-consuming as it was in the spring of 2020, the sense of urgency hasn’t gone away.

That’s one main takeaway from The Future of the American Board, a report released in October 2022 by the National Association of Corporate Directors. It opens by noting how boards now have to address a variety of headwinds, all of which needed to be handled yesterday: global tensions, climate change, inequality, political polarization, the supply chain, inflation, workforce changes, new technology, cybersecurity. And on and on. 

Though the report is targeted toward corporate leaders, associations aren’t immune to these global forces, and they have just as much reason to step up their game. Throughout the pandemic, there were numerous reports showing that association boards were meeting more but not necessarily being more productive. The NACD report offers some guidance on how boards can make their work more meaningful and sustainable.

Agility must not be confused with overstepping into management’s arena.

Somewhat surprisingly, the report isn’t prescriptive in the sense of recommending approaches to term limits, board size, and so on. To a large extent, it’s a statement on behalf of board cohesion and cultural stability. This makes sense: The urge to make Big Changes! Now! at the start of the pandemic had a way of leading to short-term (if not panicky) thinking among boards, or boards assuming management roles, which falls afoul of the strategic position that boards ought to have.

“Agility must not be confused with overstepping into management’s arena,” says the report. “The line between the board’s role and management’s role may become blurred with the speed of events, and it is critical to keep those spheres separate to ensure that the board can function as an oversight body and hold management accountable.”

Setting up those guardrails, according to the report, is a function of the culture the board creates around itself. Most of NACD’s recommendations in this area involve communication and openness, where boards and management “have agreed norms of behavior that serve to bolster trust in board-management relationships.” To make that work, board needs access to staffers who’ll provide honest input, without the board being overly intrusive. The board may also need to think differently about what it needs out of its CEO and how they’ll be assessed—there is, as the report notes, a “heightened value of emotional intelligence, empathy, and communication skills in a leader.” 

I wished the report had a little more to say about how boards can create and maintain such a culture—there’s little mention in it about orientation and onboarding, two areas where board culture is established. At his website Sustainability Education 4 Nonprofits, consultant Michael Gellman has been regularly posting this year on roles and duties on association boards, with a particular focus on how new arrivals should be starting their terms. Too often, he notes, new board members can be too timid to speak out, but early engagement is critical for creating the kind of cohesive culture the NACD report recommends. “Too often I have observed disappointment from retiring board members who did not become active until near the end of their board service term,” he wrote. “They all regretted the opportunities lost to do good for the organization and themselves.”

Board leaders, though, need to cultivate and encourage that engagement. Long-term thinking and a solid internal culture are indeed keys to weathering all of the challenges associations face. Part of that culture is creating an atmosphere where nobody sits idly.

(fotostorm/iStock/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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