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Board Dynamics

CEO Strategies for Building Board Trust

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Trust among board members doesn’t happen automatically. CEOs need to cultivate it by nurturing relationships, identifying board champions, and recognizing the risk factors for dysfunction.

If you want to get a sense of the trust level in an association boardroom, just listen. If you’re not hearing much, that could be a sign of a problem.

“When I walk into a room and people are either not willing to share or are only half-sharing, that’s a problem,” said Lowell Aplebaum, FASAE, CAE, CEO of the leadership consultancy Vista Cova. “You can tell they’re holding back, not asking questions, or not listening.”

Trust among board members is harder to come by in the long-running pandemic era. On the cusp of a fourth year of pandemic-related change, boards have experienced extended periods without in-person meetings, had divisive conversations about how an association should act during a crisis, and worked to navigate economic hits from reshuffled meetings and other disruptions—all of which can make it more difficult for board members to find common ground. These conditions can also have trickle-down effects on an organization’s ability to fulfill its mission: According to a 2021 BoardSource report, nearly half (49 percent) of nonprofit chief executives said their boards lack the members they need to “establish trust with the communities they serve.”

Every board should have a handful of board champions who encourage their colleagues to focus on mission.

Virtual meetings in particular have exacerbated the problem, says A. Michael Gellman, cofounder of Sustainability Education 4 Nonprofits. “Boards have been moving quicker with change than they have been accustomed to over the past three years, and they understand that things will continue to change and that we can’t keep doing things the same way,” he said. “But they’re sort of overwhelmed because of so much continuing change. These things affect trust, especially if board meetings are going to stay virtual, with compressed meeting time and reduced opportunities to connect in person.”

Glenn Tecker, chairman and co-CEO of the consultancy Tecker International, says that the lack of in-person engagement also softens boards’ commitments to the decisions they do make.

“We’re seeing some boards feeling less confident about a decision,” he said. “Intellectually they supported it, but they didn’t trust it. They didn’t feel engaged. More than ever before, we would find board members and boards backing away from a decision that they had made, [saying] ‘I never supported that,’ and then internal politics boiled up.”

Board Champions

To repair or get ahead of such dysfunction, association executives need to identify board members who are best positioned to serve as engaged and trustworthy leaders. Every board, Gellman says, should have a handful of board champions who encourage their colleagues to focus on mission. He stresses that they don’t have to be the longest-tenured board members or even those in executive committee roles. “You don’t have to be an officer to be a board champion,” he said.

Board orientation—where new board members often get introduced to the finer details of board service—is an excellent opportunity for establishing trust. “That’s when the team as a whole is affirming or refining what the board’s values are,” Aplebaum said. “That’s the conversation you should be having: How are we as a board going to demonstrate through action that we are living the values that we’re stating as our priority?”

Board orientations should turn on what Gellman calls a “purpose-building relationship”—establishing a culture in which a board collectively knows its values, aims, and strategy. Within and between meetings, he adds, board members and staff leaders should feel comfortable raising questions on those big-picture issues.

“You need to be proactive and inventory your board to understand their interests and needs, to figure out how to give purpose to their board term,” Gellman said.

Aplebaum agrees that the environment a board works in requires regular, deliberate maintenance—whether the board’s trust level is high or low and whether it is aligned with its stated values or not.

“The CEO is building relationships of trust with every board member—not just the chair, but every board member,” he said. “It’s a proactive and intentional effort that needs to be taken throughout the year. So when difficult moments arise, the CEO is going to be in a better position to customize that role to be the right fit, because they built those individual relationships of trust.”

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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