By, FRSA, FASAE
With the future arriving with full force, the urgent challenge before association boards is crystal clear: Strengthen board performance to begin shaping a better future for stakeholders and successors.
To act on this imperative, directors, officers, chief staff executives, and other governing contributors must collaborate to establish a new shared point of view on board purpose, composition, structure, and work for the rest of The Turbulent Twenties. In this article, I share five purposeful provocations to frame generative conversations and accelerate board reinvention.
Provocation 1: Boards must embrace their voluntary service
Association board service is a privilege and a responsibility, not a member benefit. To be clear, serving on the board places directors/officers in unique positions of significant privilege that are entrusted with the awesome responsibility of shaping a different and better future for the association, stakeholders, and successors. It is not for the faint of heart, especially in The Turbulent Twenties.
With this in mind, we must recognize association board service as voluntary, not volunteer. Voluntary service is an unambiguous choice that directors/officers make even before board service begins and it is one they must make freely every day thereafter. For some directors/officers, carrying the burdens of board service may become too difficult, which is understandable. They should not be required to continue bearing them out of either loyalty or obligation. Any director/officer who, for whatever reason, can no longer make an affirmative choice to serve voluntarily should withdraw and allow a successor to replace them.
The clear expectation at the core of this privileged voluntary service is a solemn and binding agreement to perform the work at the highest possible level for the full duration. In an irrevocably altered world, associations and boards simply cannot settle for anything less.
Next Practice: Associations can implement board agreements that emphasize individual and collective performance assessment, including both peer and third-party evaluation.
Provocation 2: Boards must choose capacity over comfort
Since the beginning of the pandemic, association decision-makers have been operating in the radical uncertainty, volatility, and risk of “the discontinuous next.” The global public health crisis was a wild card event that pushed the world off its previous pathway toward the future. It also unleashed a torrent of complex questions and wicked problems requiring immediate actions that are influencing the emergence of the next trajectory. Under extreme stress, association boards and chief staff executives have had to adapt to these unforgiving conditions through learning.
With the pandemic’s second year now underway, this ability to adapt quickly remains critical. The current crisis is far from over, and yet the recent rise in vaccination rates appears to be reducing COVID-19 concerns while deepening the desire to “get back to normal,” as if that is even possible. We will confront numerous threats in The Turbulent Twenties, but right now, the greatest threat facing the association community is the failure to grasp the devastating consequences of a hard turn back toward pre-2020 complacency.
To prevent this renewed complacency from taking hold, boards must accept the inevitable and constructive discomfort of intensifying their pursuit of learning to build new capacity for sustained action to shape a different and better future.
Next Practice: Associations can design the director experience on a foundation of intentional learning and ongoing capacity-building.
Provocation 3: Boards must discard their orthodox beliefs
Another action association boards and chief staff executives can take to push back against complacency is surfacing, interrogating, and discarding their orthodox beliefs. Orthodox beliefs are the deep-seated assumptions we make about how the world works. (An example of a societal orthodox belief is, “short-term concerns matter more than long-term thinking.”) These mostly invisible ways of thinking have been inculcated into us over many years, and our organizations over many decades. Orthodox beliefs keep associations tethered to the past, prevent necessary learning, and encourage risk avoidance.
In addition to closely examining their own orthodox beliefs, boards must develop a shared understanding of the orthodoxies held by other stakeholders and audiences within the broader industry/professional ecosystems in which their associations operate. These external orthodox beliefs can have an even more significant and detrimental impact on decision-making processes than their associations’ internal belief systems.
To shape a different future for stakeholders and successors, boards must explore a full range of plausible futures through an ongoing cycle of sense-making, meaning-making, and decision-making. As part of their foresight work, association boards must maintain an awareness of the constant presence of orthodox beliefs and challenge them vigorously at every opportunity.
Next Practice: Associations can create orthodoxy maps that visualize orthodox beliefs according to intensity, i.e., how strongly the beliefs are held and influence, i.e., how deeply the beliefs affect decision-making.
Provocation 4: Boards must end inequities in their composition
At this moment, association boards are not diverse and immediate action to seat directors/officers who bring diversity in all dimensions, including (but not limited to) race, ethnicity, gender/gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and ability status, is essential. Seating diverse boards is a moral imperative in response to the past exclusion of minority candidates from these critical roles. Not only will board diversity strengthen performance today and going forward, it will also help re-establish the legitimacy of association boards as they seek to build mutually-beneficial relationships with and shape more equitable, ethical, humane and just futures for stakeholders and successors.
The effort to create truly diverse boards requires the immediate removal of enduring structural inequities that have prevented associations from identifying, recruiting, and selecting from a broader universe of outstanding board candidates. These barriers, mostly found in governing documents and policy statements, include 1) membership-based eligibility limitations, 2) geographic structures, such as districts or regions, that can constrain inclusion, and 3) electoral-based methods of board composition that favor majority candidates.
Association boards must act decisively to implement equitable board composition requirements and practices to ensure that diverse candidates receive full and fair access to and consideration for board service opportunities.
Next Practice: Associations can update their bylaws to enable the inclusion of public directors, who serve outside a membership relationship with the association, to rapidly increase the diversity of their boards.
Provocation 5: Boards must pursue their stewardship with intention
Boards are their association’s primary stewards. To fulfill that role, they must focus their attention on leaving the systems for which they are responsible better than how they found them for the benefit of stakeholders and successors. In The Turbulent Twenties, this responsibility extends beyond associations’ legal boundaries to include the industry/professional ecosystems within which associations operate as well.
While many “leaders” across our society make zero-sum decisions to advance their short-term self-interest, the focus of stewardship is on building the collective capacity to advance our long-term shared interest. At its core, stewardship demands that boards make future-focused choices that unleash our agency to create enduring positive-sum outcomes. Stewardship is a way of being through which diverse contributors co-create stronger systems at every level.
The tendency to default to an increasingly inadequate leadership paradigm has become another form of association orthodoxy. Given the complex challenges we face in this decade and beyond , however, stewardship is a higher calling than leadership. Boards must act on their stewardship with the clear intention to inspire all association stakeholders to make meaningful contributions to that vital work.
Provocation 6: Boards must focus on the essential outcomes of governing
Governing is a critical activity of board stewardship. Unfortunately, the primary training that most association boards receive concentrates on helping them fulfill governing’s traditional activities, including oversight and policymaking. Without question, these activities are necessary and important, but associations must not allow them to become their boards’ primary areas of focus.
Throughout The Turbulent Twenties, and especially during the uncertainty, volatility, and risk of the current “discontinuous next” our society is experiencing, association boards must devote maximum attention to the essential outcomes of governing captured in my definition of the term: governing is an intentional and dynamic process for enabling the coherence, capability, and continuity of the systems for which boards are responsible. This approach to governing ensures that interconnected systems 1) understand their reasons for being and the outcomes they intend to achieve (coherence), 2) can take effective action to make progress toward achieving those outcomes (capability) and 3) can thrive even as they confront the disruptive impact created by powerful forces of turbulence (continuity).
While association boards must emphasize high performance in every aspect of their voluntary service, they also must make the most effective use of their limited attention resources by developing a strong governing intent that prioritizes the essential outcomes of governing.
Provocation 7: Boards must stand up for the future
Over many decades, association boards have waxed nostalgic for a past did not exist or existed only for a privileged few. Nevertheless, the natural human tendency to romanticize “the good old days” has led many boards to operate based on orthodox beliefs and protect the status quo within their associations and fields, while failing to prepare for the future. As a result, associations have had to bear the costs of governing debt, especially during the most difficult periods of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In this turbulent decade, it is critical for boards to accept the duty of foresight that animates the work of stewardship, governing, and foresight [SGF]. Associations need boards to direct their agency toward shaping a different and better future. This shift in orientation from protecting the past to shaping the future is an urgent matter not only for the thrivability of associations themselves, but for the stakeholders that associations will serve throughout this decade and beyond.
By acting on the duty of foresight and standing up for the future today, association boards can end the practice of shifting responsibility for the future to successors. Every current association director/officer should be asking themselves and their peers a fundamental question: if we don’t attend to the future starting right now, who will?
Provocation 8: Boards must step back from strategy
Among the most sacrosanct orthodox beliefs in association management is the need for boards to conduct strategic planning. This orthodoxy is untrue and unhelpful in two ways: 1) strategic planning is not a good use of association resources and 2) associations need their boards to play a more limited role in the work of strategy. Let’s address the second concern here.
To fulfill the duty of foresight, boards must invest themselves into deep and ongoing learning with the future. This complex and high-stakes work will require considerable attention and energy from individual directors/officers and from boards working together with a team dynamic. Given the immersive nature of the board’s foresight work, it is critical that they take a step back from hands-on involvement with strategy and entrust that work to other contributors.
In place of their boards, associations should invite under-40 stakeholders (from both inside and outside their current boundaries) to accept primary responsibility for shaping new value creation. By involving younger contributors directly in the strategy-making process, associations can realize the benefits of their diverse and future-oriented perspectives while sending a powerful message about the central role that under-40 stakeholders must play in setting the strategic direction of their associations today.
Provocation 9: Boards must reject ideological division
Throughout their history, associations have had to confront the challenge of reconciling opposing political views to find common ground for action. In the last few years, however, profound ideological division—fueled by active efforts to spread damaging conspiracy theories and disinformation—has corroded our public discourse to such an extent that it can be difficult reach agreement on what constitutes trustworthy information.
As societal institutions that celebrate the value of expertise, share essential knowledge and support meaningful learning, the deep politicization of facts represents an existential threat to associations. Boards must categorically reject the toxic influence of ideological division in every phase of their associations’ activities and especially in their own critical work of stewardship, governing, and foresight.
Conducting civil and respectful dialogue will not be sufficient to avoid the continued politicization of facts. Instead, directors/officers should make clear and firm commitments to each other to prevent the detrimental influence of ideologically-inspired extremism from corrupting board conversations and decision-making.
Provocation 10: Boards must sacrifice for their successors
The decisions that association boards will need to make throughout The Turbulent Twenties will require them to take self-sacrificing actions for the primary benefit of successors. The COVID-19 pandemic and the other forces of turbulence unfolding right now have made it painfully clear that all choices from this point forward will be hard. The more complicated question association boards will need to answer repeatedly is which hard choices also will be the correct choices for those who will follow them.
When directors/officers think of themselves and choose to operate as stewards, they acknowledge that they own neither their associations nor their board seats. Instead, they recognize that responsibility for both is entrusted to them on a temporary basis before it is passed on to their successors, just as their predecessors passed it on to them.
By prioritizing the long-term interests of successors—especially people they will never know personally—over their own short-term interests, directors/officers can demonstrate respect for and bring honor to the extraordinary privilege of their voluntary board service.