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Staying focused and effective.

Tips on how to spot trouble in the making and make the board a productive team.

You've put in your time on the board, chaired committees, and attended countless meetings. You've gained the respect of your peers, and now they've honored you with the best reward they can give you: They've elected you board chair.

Maybe it's at that point that you begin to notice bickering at meetings, tensions between the "old wave" and the new, as many board members who aren't prepared for meetings as who are, and staff who say they haven't had time to prepare because of conflicting priorities or miscommunication.

But the buck does stop with you. It is, after all, your responsibility to keep the board focused and pointed in the right direction, correcting course as appropriate.

The good news is that you're not alone in this role. You are in partnership with the chief staff executive and the board. You achieve a well-functioning board by focusing on member needs and establishing a clear vision and measurable performance goals.

Simple, right? Well, not exactly, because personalities, group dynamics, and general confusion can all contribute in a variety of ways to the dysfunction of the board.

Organizational vision

In your role as the new chief elected officer, the biggest challenge you face is to accomplish your personal objectives while meeting the needs of the organization. Peter Senge, in his book The Fifth Discipline, states the case well when he says, "It can truly be said that nothing happens until there is vision. But it is equally true that a vision with no underlying sense of purpose, no calling, is just a good idea. . . ."

A functional board looks at the foundations of the association: a clear vision statement, a supporting mission statement, and attainable goals and objectives. All of these apply to the board, staff, and members. The balance between personal agendas and organizational needs is met when the vision is fulfilled.

As chair, your responsibility is to first orient the board to the vision and mission. Then keep asking, "How is this decision going to help accomplish the mission of this association?"

It's equally important that you foster a sense of the appropriate role of governance. Organizational analyst John Carver describes governance by using the analogy of nesting mixing bowls. The inner bowls represent staff activities, such as deciding who to hire or fire. The outermost bowl represents board responsibilities, such as monitoring and ensuring fiscal health and making sure the mandates and vision of the board are carried out. By staying focused on the vision and mission of the organization, the board can avoid the pitfalls of dysfunction.

How can it all go wrong?

Your level of understanding of the interactions and motivations that occur in a volunteer organization will be a key determinant of the success of your term. Board members come equipped with their own sets of motivations and behaviors just as the staff does. Each has a different level of competence.

A variety of circumstances can contribute to a board's failing to meet the needs of the members and to fulfill the association's vision and mission. Among them:

* Board members' motivations conflict with the goals of the organization.

* Meetings are pro forma (skilled incompetence).

* Some of the board members want the job of chief staff executive.

* The board is confused about goals.

* Volunteer leaders and staff do not trust one another. This is often shown by indirect or incomplete communication in either direction.

* The board has failed to clarify its expectations with the CEO and to give him or her regular feedback.

* The makeup of the board does not well represent the membership.

* The board has not reached out to rank-and-file members, especially newcomers.

If you recognize any of these problems in your association, you and your colleagues on the board would be well-advised to examine board processes and communication. Working together, you can take a number of actions to eliminate the board's dysfunction and increase its effectiveness.

Form a representative board

The board is supposed to be the visioning body of the association. At the same time that members of the board provide the vision, they need to realize that there is a difference between them and the "rank and file" members.

Board members tend to be the motivated, outgoing leaders of the industry or profession. They tend to be successful in their ventures and have the resources to travel to meetings. Many of them have put in their time in the industry and have personal reasons for investing in its health.

For board members to truly represent their industry or profession, they need to get face to face with the members, especially the newcomers. They need to meet them in their own places of business and see why these people came into the industry and what their passions and issues are, and to show them how to benefit from membership. The face-to-face process is a highly useful way to identify potential new committee and board members. One association I have worked with schedules board meetings at locations throughout the state and region on a semiannual basis. All members are invited to these open board meetings.

Emphasize performance

Allen Liff, president of Ronin Marketing, Washington, D.C., believes boards need to be challenged toward higher performance. He points to the lessons from the book by Jon Kaatzenbach and Douglas Smith, The Wisdom of Teams. The authors make the point that high-performance teams are more likely to emerge and thrive in organizations in which the culture focuses on performance. Where the focus is "becoming a team," the teams actually falter. The desire and necessity for performance, according to Liff, drives out dysfunctional behavior.

The challenge for boards is to have measurable outcomes, both for themselves and the staff. For example, staff can be measured on specific membership retention numbers; bonuses can be based on financial success of programs. The board can be measured in terms of preparation for the board meetings, attendance at association functions, new member acquisition, and so on.

Value time

Volunteers' time is valuable, so it's incumbent on you, as chair, to have a tight meeting agenda with strict time limits so that board members will know their time is well spent. Apply the same level of efficiency to helping board members prepare for meetings. Try providing executive summaries of pre-meeting reading materials, backed up with detail, to help ensure that most board members read the material before the meeting.

It's also important to acknowledge up front the importance of your own time commitment. Allocate about one to two hours a month to meet with the chief staff executive to review pertinent issues and activities. Explore ways to make your partnership a productive and professional one. Regular communication with the chief staff executive is key to your success as board chair and to the overall functioning of the association.

Create value

Gary L. Fetgatter, CAE, executive director of the Ohio Podiatric Medical Association, Columbus, and the first chair of the ASAE Small Staff Association Advisory Committee, observes that "dysfunctional boards are a symptom of a dysfunctional executive and dysfunctional association." His solution is to create value in the association, and he recommends to boards the following actions:

1. Use professional management techniques (plan, organize, staff, and control) to ensure that every project has a proper allocation of human resources.

2. Create a team concept where the organizational goals are the focus.

3. Open up the board to more input from the grass roots by getting into the field.

4. Remove all impediments to new board members (help pay for travel expenses, ask about best meeting times, etc.).

Ensuring that your association's board functions as an effective team - one that works well together in meeting the needs of the members and fulfilling the association's vision and mission - is a demanding undertaking, but it's one that can make leadership dreams come true.

Fine-Tune Your Leadership Skills

By keeping up to date on leadership techniques, you can enhance your ability to improve your board's effectiveness. Books espousing various organizational management theories can be especially thought-provoking. In addition to those mentioned in the main article, other insightful reads include

* The Addictive Organization, by Anne Wilson Schaef and Diane Fassel;

* Leadership and the New Science, by Margaret J. Wheatley;

* The Mind of the Strategist, by Kenichi Ohmae;

* On Leadership, by Warren Bennis; and

* The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Steven Covey.

The American Society of Association Executives offers numerous books and publications of interest to leaders. For more information, call ASAE's Member Service Center, (202) 371-0940, or search the book catalog on ASAE's Web site,

Tapping into other resources, such as ASAE's leadership seminars for chief elected officers and chief executive officers, is another way to fine-tune your leadership skills as well as your understanding of the nature of associations.

During the seminars, instructors guide participants through various association processes, including a needs assessment, strategic planning, policy setting, financial planning, and budgeting. The chief elected officer and the chief executive officer end up with a working plan for the current year with a vision for the next five years. For more information, consult the sidebar in the article "Productive Partnerships" in this issue of ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT.

Tom Ethen is executive director of the Pacific Automotive Trades Associations, Portland, Oregon. He is a member of the board of the Oregon Society of Association Executives, Portland, and the board of regents of the UCLA Institute for Organization Management.
COPYRIGHT 1997 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article on enhancing leadership skills; boards of directors
Author:Ethen, Tom
Publication:Association Management
Date:Jan 1, 1997
Previous Article:The growing stakes for good governance.
Next Article:Self-assessment: a remedy for dysfunctional board behaviors.

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