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Fact and fiction.


How to teach your governing board the difference.

Do you feel distanced from your board, forced to make crucial budgeting and operating decisions based on your best guess of the board's preference? Are you in a black hole of programming activity, sucked into a vacuum of more and more programs, activities, and requests for service--mostly from your board--and not receiving the necessary fiscal or human resources to manage?

That's the dilemma we faced at the Oregon State Bar, Lake Oswego, for the past several years. What did we do to close the fact-versus-fiction variance--the distance between what our board members realistically knew and bought into and what they expected, requested, or demanded of staff? We expanded our usual board orientation and training mechanisms regarding the scope of programming and activities, budget realities, issues, and member needs. We also strongly believed that until the board bought into and became actively involved in long-range planning, we were destined to repeat our nightmare.

Picture our dilemma

Several institutional realities set a particularly complex--and exasperating--stage. By unwritten rule, the board of governors run for and serve one three-year term. We operate with a 15-person board: 12 lawyers elected by geographical bar district and three public members selected by the board. One third of the board, therefore, is replaced each year. Most members have participated in bar activities but have limited knowledge of the organization itself.

Lawyers, particularly trial lawyers, see themselves as instant experts. They like to trouble-shoot, are accustomed to giving directives and having them performed, and do not generally understand or appreciate organizational structure.

Our president-elect is elected by the board from among its second-year members three months prior to the membership year end. Thus, staff has only three months to educate, work with, and acclimate a new president.

Bar associations, particularly mandatory organizations, seldom fund the organization with revenue-generating operations. They operate some programs on a break-even basis but rarely charge enough to support other programs. We depend more on dues than do trade associations, for example. The board here in Oregon is also extremely reluctant to increase dues enough to even keep up with inflation. Taking inflation into account, between 1970 and 1990 our dues were highest in 1974. But in those 20 years our programming more than quadrupled.

And finally, we had what I considered a rudimentary long-range plan. It had no specific priorities or goals and was not incorporated in the decision-making process by the board.

What we provided the board

Until 1990 our relatively comprehensive board training, education, and assistance had four parts.

President-elect orientation. As soon as possible after his or her election, we spend one or more meetings discussing working relationships, organizational structure, how governance flows through our organization, appointment processes, board management, programs and activities, and priorities and issues for the coming year. High on my list is ensuring the president and I are a team of equals.

Board orientation. Before new board members take office, this half-day session provides a reference manual with bylaws, enabling statute (we are a mandatory bar by state law), board policies, staff organizational chart, directory of staff, rules and procedures for all mandatory programs, and other similar information. The active part of the session covers * basic governance makeup; * role of board and executive director; * how the board performs its duties; * responsibilities of individual board members; * board member relationships and interaction with staff; * staff organization; * budget and budgeting process; * overview of programs and activities; * relationships with other bar-related boards; and * resource materials such as ASAE publications.

Staff memos. As the board takes up items for discussion and action, we provide background and historical information, pros and cons, and a recommendation for action.

Budget process. We charge general overhead to each program budget to reflect the true cost of activities. I prepare an extensive memo with each year's budget, reviewing programs, activities, resources, and needs.

Sabotaging ourselves?

In one respect staff had been its own worst enemy. Even though we were stretched beyond our limits and argued that we needed more staff and fiscal resources, when asked to perform we had a track record of getting the task done--at whatever cost--and done well. We delivered and also managed to come in under budget each year. That's what the board saw.

Each year, however, brought more temporary staff to ease the burden and get the job done. Each year also saw a greater degree of burnout and stress in our regular staff. Overtime hours were at an all-time high for nonexempt employees. We consistently had to respond to crisis rather than plan and follow through tasks. Our greatest fear was that in the crunch of crisis management we were forgetting something crucial.

Getting ready to change

With minimal success, we had tried two planning retreats. Little was accomplished and board members were not enthusiastic. Now, two new elements helped us press for long-range planning. We conducted a random membership survey to determine members' priorities concerning current programs and activities, future issues for the profession, and other unmet needs. This gave us a base for assisting the board in evaluating programming priorities and future goals.

And, happily, the current president was a business lawyer whose prior experience with government and corporations helped him understand organizational structure and operations. He agreed to appoint a long-range planning committee and gave firm instructions about the members' role and responsibility. The committee could have ignored these instructions and reported that no steps needed to be taken. However, the committee members respected the president and me and recognized that the staff unilaterally desired this project. They complied.

The first planning session

Our first big step toward separating fact from fiction was a full-board planning session with an outside facilitator. We began the day by discussing "groupthink" and how to avoid it. Cohesive groups such as boards can easily trap themselves into groupthink; individual members feel an overriding need to concur as a group and fail to realistically appraise alternative courses of action. This occurs particularly when one individual speaks out strongly on an issue: Others hesitate to speak out, and the group assumes that everyone agrees.

Symptoms of groupthink include * an illusion of invulnerability; * rationalizations to discount warnings; * belief in morality of the cause; * stereotyped opposition; * pressure on doubting members; * self-censorship; and * an illusion of unanimity.

Unfortunate results of groupthink are * addressing few alternatives; * failing to reexamine the initial course; * limiting discussion of rejected alternatives; * limiting solicitation of internal expertise; * concentrating on support; and * limiting deliberation of possible setbacks to the chosen course.

We spent the rest of the day on issues and priorities. For most of the morning the board listed trends that might affect the legal profession or the bar and classified them as societal, economic, political, environmental, or technological. We took turns around the table contributing trends. The facilitator polled the group several times and posted the complete list on the wall.

We then listed organizational weaknesses and strengths we thought likely to be identified by bar members or the public.

Consulting these three lists, each of us contributed the most important issues we felt the bar would face over the next two to three years. Then each listed 10 priority issues on a written ballot. This group process obtains an accurate expression of each individual's analysis and avoids the groupthink trap. We could have used additional written ballots, reducing with each tabulation the number of priority items considered.

We tabulated the results and found the group's top 12 (we had two ties). These would be discretionary issues, since the bar has certain mandated programs that must retain high priority.

The rest of the day we spent with the facilitator drafting plans of action for the first four listed issues. Board members took on assignments to complete plans for the remaining eight issues by the next board meeting and agreed we would present these discretionary priorities to the membership, staff, and other relevant groups.

Staff analysis

Prior to the long-range planning committee's first meeting, the staff management team--the division directors and me--met to analyze every program or activity of the bar. Our report to the committee provided an objective, realistic analysis of programs and activities, hard data on fiscal and human resource cost and availability, and our recommendation to delete some programs and services and to adopt a core programming approach.

We also recommended basic governance changes. Since board members run for only one three-year term, ours knows less about its job than do most association boards. As each "class"--the five new people elected to serve each year--reaches the end of its second year, officers are elected who consequently lack experience. I strongly recommended switching to a five-year term so that a board member could grow knowledgeable through three years of board service, then have one year as an officer-elect and finally one year in office. The board felt five years would be too much work. I argued it would be less.

At several meetings, the committee discussed and analyzed all bar activities and the management team's recommendations. Although the committee rejected the core programming approach, we did win a different victory: The plan's final version included a section specifying how the plan would be used. We required the board to update the long-range plan every year prior to starting the budget process and to conduct a triannual survey of members and representatives of the public. Before adding or revising programs, a committee must analyze the change and justify it with the long-range plan and budget; we included specific evaluation guidelines.

At the next board meeting, the committee presented the final version of the long-range plan, and after a lengthy review, the board approved it.

Staff then took the plan and worked out a realistic budget for 1991. The budget committee and board ultimately approved that budget, and shortly thereafter the dues increase--19.2 percent, or $38 added to the basic fee--was approved by the membership.

Great results

Our board now better understands the facts. It has, as a result, provided staff with adequate human and fiscal resources to do our job. This year we still had to deal with frequent requests for additional activities, but now when we say we need additional resources or suggest how or when the task should be done, board members listen constructively. In addition * The board approved adequate funding for the next two years, assuming no drastic changes in programming. Eventually we'll have to return to the membership for another dues increase, but the board did take into account needs for the next two years, the prior effect of inflation, and some new programs. * The board has a much greater understanding of resource needs, effort expended by staff, and extent of programs and activities. * The board is more cognizant of the impact of added or expanded activities. * The board recognizes the value of planning for the future through both planning sessions and a long-range planning process. * The board has a heightened awareness of the impact on the staff and the bar of its governance structure--but is reluctant to change it. * The board is more concerned about staff burnout and the stressful effect of competing priorities and pressures. Staff are treated as individuals. * Staff, too, has a much better understanding of board priorities and goals. We are not forced to guess our way through the budgeting process. * We replaced temporary staff and reduced overtime hours by hiring seven new full-time-equivalent staff.

These are great strides. However, there are some areas where we fell short of my goal:

* No programs or activities were reduced or cut. * No long-range policy was established for dues and nondues funding. The board still refuses to project revenue beyond the two-year horizon. We have ongoing fiscal and reserve policies but would benefit from a long-range fiscal support policy. * Our board still wishes to reinvent the wheel and burden staff with many extra tasks, though it is far more aware of the impact on staff and budget. * The board still resists making any substantive changes in our governance structure. Since members serve only one term, each is extremely reluctant to address hard problems during his or her term. They prefer to leave those issues to future boards. The result is that no board will consider them. We will continue pressing for change here. * Many staff have a wait-and-see attitude, not fully believing that the board will adhere to the process.

Directing an organization through change requires strong leadership and a partnership among volunteer members and leaders and staff. My advice to other executive directors, in short form, is this:

1. Acknowledge your current problems and realities. 2. Openly admit to a share of the blame. In fact, augment the truth if necessary to place both members and staff on the side of change. 3. Know what you wish to achieve. 4. Break down the steps required to go from here to there into achievable increments. 5. Recognize the personality and decision-making traits of your board members and adapt your approach. 6. Win the buy-in of the president and other leaders. 7. Use outside experts as needed. 8. Persist in moving toward your goals, but lighten the process with humor and humanness. 9. Keep repeating and reinforcing the theme of change and ensure that staff does the same. 10. Keep trying--you can escape that black hole.

Celene Greene, CAE, is executive director of the Oregon State Bar, Lake Oswego.
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Society of Association Executives
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Title Annotation:telling the boards of directors the realities of management
Author:Greene, Celene
Publication:Association Management
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Oct 1, 1991
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