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Board Dynamics

An Agile Board for Ever-Changing Times

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Fast action in a crisis isn’t necessarily the same thing as agility. Boards with a built-in culture of strategic conversations, supported by effective processes, can be both deliberative and speedy.

When the pandemic took hold in 2020, plenty of association boards understandably took a state-of-emergency posture, hustling to convene and make rapid decisions about how their organization should respond. The 12-person board of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, by contrast, was unusually calm.

“Honestly, there was no change,” said AAMFT CEO Tracy Todd. “Maybe things sped up a little bit, but our process remained the same because that has been our focus for 10 years—how to be quick, agile, nimble, without the board getting into the staff or the staff getting into the board. All of that we have pretty much down.”

AAMFT’s experience draws an important distinction for association boards: Rapid response isn’t the same thing as agility, and going into crisis mode isn’t the same thing as being strategic.

“The [COVID-19] crisis forced boards into focus, but it was through a crisis lens,” said Cynthia Mills, CMC, FASAE, CAE, founder, president, and CEO of the Leaders’ Haven, an association consultancy. “Going forward, I think the opportunity is to drop the crisis lens but keep the leadership behavior that keeps the board at high-level focus.”

“Going forward, the opportunity is to drop the crisis lens but keep the leadership behavior that keeps the board at high-level focus.” — Cynthia Mills, CMC, FASAE, CAE, The Leaders’ Haven

Critical Call-Outs

How does the AAMFT board do that? By making those high-level strategic discussions a constant part of board work, rather than reserving them for “strategy retreats” or high-pressure moments when it needs to react. At the core of board members’ ongoing deliberations is a CEO report that Todd delivers three times a year, a roughly 70-page document that covers the state of the association and its industry. The report is filled with what Todd calls “call-outs”—listings of industry headwinds, open questions, and potential future challenges that the board is expected to address on its online platform, in meetings, and on discussion calls.

“The board chair leads the discussion through each of the call-outs that I have presented,” Todd said. “As soon as the CEO report comes out, they start dialoguing, brainstorming, and problem-solving.”

A few cultural elements help guide that process. First, the annual orientation meeting is attended by everyone, so newcomers and longer-tenured board members share a common understanding about how they deliberate. Second, board members themselves are welcome to bring their own call-outs to the group. And third, board leadership has developed a habit of soliciting feedback from all participants.

“The chair and president-elect do a very nice job of saying, ‘Listen, we’ve heard from almost everybody here, we need to hear from the last two people or last three people,’” Todd said.

AAMFT’s process has a lot of moving parts on the front end, but it tends to make decision-making go faster when the board is compelled to act. For instance, in early 2022 Todd raised a call-out about sunsetting the association’s print publication and moving it to a digital-only format. He sent the proposal in January; by the following month the move to digital was official.

“Not only was it unanimous, it was like, ‘We should have done this yesterday,’” he said. “I was thinking it would be a six- to 18-month process, and it was done by the end of February.”

To create that kind of agility in a board, Mills says, association leaders may need to move away from a “strategic retreat” model, where boards talk about big issues once a year, and more to an “ongoing strategic dynamic,” where big-picture concerns are always top of mind. That means a strategic mindset is an essential quality for nominating committees to consider when looking for new board candidates.

“If you’re saying yes to leadership, you have to be willing to wrestle through challenges with people, not against them, and enjoy the ride,” Mills said. “That will allow the dynamic to be in place for agility and good decision-making, because you’re working with people who are willing to do it.”

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.

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