From Both Sides of the Board Table

Lives and fortunes have been spent attempting to understand and direct Boards of Directors.  Any of us can spend our entire careers contemplating how and why a group of knowledegable and competant individuals act the way they do once they are assembled in a boardroom.  Group dynamics is truly an interesting topic and one that many have spent lifetimes addressing.

Jerry Harvery years ago wrote a management book, The Abilene Paraodox which describes a group of individuals traveling a distance to a restaurant that individually none would ever want to be caught dead at.  No one was willing or able to independently analyze the situation and thus the end result was lacking at best.  The power of a group can certainly be beneficial, as was the case in  the recent non-violent overthrow of the despotic Egyptian regime but we also know of “gang mindsets” where groups will perform tasks as one that they would never act upon as an individual.

Boards are very interesting and compelling entities and for those of us in the Association Management Business, they are our bread and butter.  We love them when they are in agreement with us and we can’t understand their rationale when they fail to perform to our expectations.

Association Boards of Directors are not fraternities or book clubs.  They are organized to direct, in many cases multi-million dollar organizations that have an impact on thousands (or even millions)  of people within an industry or a profession.  These Leaders need to understand their role as a director while also being prepared for the discussion and the ramifications of their actions.

Many of us have had the privilege to be on both sides of the Board Table.  If you really want to see democracy in action be a member of a School Board, a Jury (which certainly has many of the dynamics that take place on Boards) or a Municipal Governing Body; the positioning and political action abounds.  I would be willing to say that if you haven’t had such an experience, you really can’t address firsthand what it is really like to observe “sausages being made.”

The responsibility and function of a Board is so uniquely American.  It is democracy in action.  It is a role that most take very seriously and are prepared for by their career.  Unfortuantely there are those who swing from the hip and can negatively impact the bottom-line of the organization that they oversee.  In post Sarbanes-Oxley, Boards need to be so much more than what many were in the past.

Boards have a fiduciary obligation to direct their associations.  This responsibility is one that all should take seriously.  Boards also have the obligation to partner with their management team and staff to provide tangible results for the dues-paying members.  Directors must keep top of mind that they are representatives of the membership and that they are actively engaged to care for the organization and provide for its continual evolvement and growth.

For those of us who are rewarded during good times and have difficulty sleeping during down-turns it behooves us to know who we work for and how to relate to those who actually “own” the association.  Association Execs are the caretakers of the organization; we may give blood and tears to our job but we don’t own stock and we don’t pay membership dues.

Your relationship with a Board of Directors is always suspect and tenable.  As was the case in The Abilene Paradox, it only takes one to misdirect a group while it takes all the members to succumb to the group decision.  One must be prepared for all possibilities, one must make sure there are no conflict of interests and one must make sure that decisions being made are being made for the benefit of the whole and not the few.

With that premise established, a sane person would ask why anyone would want to be involved in such a dynamic.  For those of us who have engaged in such a role, it is the greatest opportunity one can have.   Where else can an individual be able to respond to membership needs and where else can you be as creative as one can be in an Association?  Though some of us have had university training in groups, I would be willing to say that “in-battle experience” is the only preparation for the next job.

To be an Association Exec you must love to work with people and you must love to find solutions to issues in a rational and problem-solving approach.  It is not for everybody, but for those of us who have “cut our teeth” on this profession – there is nothing like it!


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