Managing an Association Board

How does a well-managed board become a key success factor for European associations?
18th Feb, 2016

For many Association managers “managing” the board of their association is a challenging experience! They are very efficient running the day-to-day activities of their business and best practices in this field are widely shared with their peers. This is not true for tips on how to work with their board.

Text Florence Bindelle, Secretary General, EuropeanIssuers and ESAE Vice President

Looking forward

The role of the Board of Directors is among other things to define the association strategy by setting objectives, to empower the executive management, in some cases to set up and lead committees, to approve new members or to define financial procedures. The CEO aligns him/herself with the board strategy and implements a structure that acts to achieve the objectives.

The association manager must be aware of the individual behaviours and dynamics within the board. Board behaviour and culture drive performance. Change is difficult! Many reports explain the need for sound judgment, for effective decision-making and for a reinforced role of the chair. But it all goes back to using sound common sense. In practice, it is not because you know that you change your behaviour or you act the way you should.

The effectiveness of a board is its capacity to anticipate problems; to discuss dilemmas, conflicts and realise change when appropriate. The approach should not only be backward looking based on reporting but also and mainly forward looking.

Sharing a vision

Group dynamics drive individual behaviours and the way people interact: Who owns the power? How is conflict dealt with? Do they respect each other? Do they work together or apart? Is board effectiveness regularly evaluated? A shared vision, common values, a team spirit and regular self-evaluation is mandatory.

It is also important to grasp the mind-set: what is really relevant for the association? What are the values? Not only the official ones but unwritten values? Why people behave the way they do? Are board members more risk-taking or risk-adverse? Do we have to act and do we do it? Do we take actions to remediate the root cause of problems?

There are different patterns: those who do nothing or very little; those who have no opinion; those who agree in board meeting but run away after it; those who know better and go into detail and those who know everything about everything. By looking at those patterns you can articulate what is strong and effective and what might cause a damage to the integrity or performance of the board.

Your role as association manager is to deal with all those personalities. Identify the board members from their positive strengths: the connector, who sees a relationship between one another; the strategist, who is really committed to the goal developed. Very often strong desire for consensus and group comfort can lead to inefficiency even in a robust decision making ruled framework.

Establish your position is the most important thing. What is the corporate culture? How open can you talk at the board? Can you really be transparent? Can you knock at the door with bad news to safe the organisation?

Tips for working your board

1) Celebrate successes

The best way to manage your board is to do a great job managing your association. The success of the association is the one that the board cares about the most. Measure successes to interact with the board and generate a discussion on improvements.

2) Build a great board

Embrace people who you believe can really help you. Look for shared interests and differences as well. Review the group size and the diversity. Introduce an induction process and a yearend review with the president.

3) Communicate

Formally, informally, collectively, and individually, communication is essential. Avoid surprises.
4) Encourage staff/director relationships

Don’t be a filter between your staff and your board. Open access to your staff will help the board assess the organisation from different perspectives. It demonstrates your confidence and shows your staff their own importance.
5) Get and keep your hands dirty

If you tell your board you have lost a deal, make sure you have been there. If you have won a deal, make sure your fingerprints are on it. You need to be intricately involved in your organisation.

6) Be resourceful

Use the resources of your directors’ organisations. It is one of the great benefits.
7) Make Board meetings matter

Be in control. Have an agenda. Use time efficiently. Prepare, inform, discuss and decide. Demonstrate progression on what you said last time. Be direct. Propose different scenario including worst-case scenario. Be a step ahead.

8) Never position the board versus the association

If it’s you or the association against the board, rest assured; the board will always win. Never put yourself or the association in this position.
9) Push Back

Sometimes directors have different views and ideas. Be open to different perspectives, but push back, when it makes sense.
10) Build a “safe” relationship with at least one director or the chair

Trusted alliances are crucial. Ensure you have at least one unwavering relationship with at least one director with whom you can confide during the most difficult decisions.

11) Have a plan and measure against it

Have a plan, outline goals, demonstrate how you’ll measure performance, and do it on a regular basis.
12) When failure happens, declare it quickly

If a challenge appears declare it quickly. Design an action plan and execute to avoid failure.
13) Be passionate and have fun

Have a genuine commitment to your work, and show the board the fire in your belly.
14) Remember rules #1 and #2

Bottom line… the team you build and how you choose to manage that team are the most critical elements of success.


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