How to Move a Board Into Action

Talking strategy is one thing. Making decisive moves is another. One association CEO shares how a more diverse board with a design mindset can make a difference.

Every association wants a dynamic, agile, future-focused board. The trick is figuring out how to develop one.

One theme that emerged as I was working on stories for the latest Associations Now Deep Dive on leadership is that acting fast isn’t necessarily an asset. Many boards had to take decisive action in a hurry as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. But that can come at the expense of a strategic emphasis on long-term goals. As consultant Cynthia Mills, CMC, FASAE, CAE, told me, boards need to “drop the crisis lens but keep the leadership behavior that keeps the board at high-level focus.”

That means taking a longer view, and a little more patience. A good example of that focus is a recent governance shift at the Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards: I wrote about how CLARB’s board had become constrained by outdated requirements that limited its flexibility and diversity. Following a years-long process, in 2019 it approved a governance structure that widens its pipeline and is more inviting to a wider range of people in the profession.

That shift, says CLARB CEO Matt Miller, also freed the board to become more strategic. “We’re really engaged in what we now refer to as CLARB 2.0—an intentional designing of the future we want the organization to be in, setting the organization up for movement in that direction,” he said.

We’re using foresight knowledge and saying, ‘OK, because of this, where do we think the organization needs to be?’

Matthew A. Miller, CLARB

One change, Miller says, involves board activity within meetings. The board spends time not just on foresight discussions, but on how to follow through on its conclusions. When he became CEO in 2019, he sensed the board “spent a very large amount of time studying and learning, but not as much time designing,” he said. “They were not taking that next step.” 

Now, Miller says, foresight discussions set the table for daylong design discussions: “We’re using the foresight knowledge and inputs from other stakeholders and saying, ‘OK, because of this, where do we think the organization needs to be?’ We identify the major strategic themes that come out of that and have a board meeting for each of those themes, identifying outcomes and a strategy or two on how to move the organization forward.”

In addition to the action CLARB’s board takes internally around strategy, the organization is also more mindful around succession planning, being more proactive in identifying talent that can be positive, disruptive-in-a-good-way additions to the board. Now that the governance structure doesn’t require all board members to be registered landscape architects, CLARB can fill gaps around competencies, which can evolve over time. For instance, Miller says, the board is paying more attention to leaders with experience outside of the United States and Canada, and emerging professionals.

The board also made a decision to study how the profession was practiced globally, in the process understanding how mature the profession is—and identifying future resources. “I think we’ve got a more global view and a better understanding of the issues affecting landscape architecture outside the U.S. and Canada, and it’s surprised me to see how people have had their minds changed about the orthodoxies they once held about the profession,” Miller said.

That, he says, should help expand not just the range of leaders CLARB has, but the diversity of mindsets within it. “We’re not talking about replacing yourself with yourself—we’re talking about setting up the organization for success in the future,” he said.

(FG Trade/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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