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The 72,000 trade associations all have one thing in common – the CEO and the association staff all ultimately report (and work for) a board of directors.
Let’s face it. As CEOs, we have all worked for great boards, with capable and successful individuals who passionately care about the association, its membership, and the industry the trade association represents. But in our drive for success, we sometimes forget that our board is composed of extremely talented individuals who run incredible enterprises and have limits on their time and attention on association business. At a minimum, we can never waste their time, which is a precious commodity.
When we do have a great board, it makes the mission of the association easier to achieve.
So how can a CEO and the association team help make a board into a unified team to maximize the association’s success? Here are seven initiatives that have worked for top association leaders:
1. Provide written “Board Expectations” to all individuals who wish to seek election or appointment to the board. This, by itself, helps reduce the number of individuals who want to join the board for the sole reason of adding the experience to their resume or to network “industry players” with existing directors. While it cannot be a requirement to join the board, I strongly urge you, if approved by your association lawyer, to encourage participation in your political action committee, if there is one.
2. Create an “On-Boarding” process for new directors so they understand the focus of the association and their roles during their terms. Hold a new director orientation for all newly elected members so they can understand the mission, structure, long-term strategic objectives, and goals of the group for the next calendar year. Make it clear what you expect from them and what they should expect from you.
3. Provide a binder of board responsibilities and other valuable association material that the directors will use as their point of reference. Having it online is terrific but handing them a binder makes it real. Most, if not all, will read the materials. Be sure to have important dates and events in the binder that they will not want to miss.
4. Assign more senior directors to mentor new members. Pick from your most seasoned (and reliable) directors and ask them to help those new to the board to learn what is really important and what their oversight function is in helping set strategy for the association. New directors are sometimes nervous often asking themselves questions such as “What do I do?” or “How should I engage?” A mentor program lets them hit the ground running and keep association momentum moving forward.
5. Alternate board seating arrangements so directors are constantly developing new friendships. We often think that all directors know each other and are familiar. But, in reality, their busy professional and personal lives make it difficult for them to really get to know to each other. Mixing where people sit allows the board to get to know each other better.
6. Create a real or perceived “association ascension ladder” so board members who wish to be in the leadership will have to “go through the chairs” or the various board committees. This allows the individual seeking a leadership role more experience in all aspects of the association while allowing you, as the CEO, to see their strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, your chairman will be a stronger and more effective partner.
7. Empower your board chairman to speak frankly and appropriately to board members who self-define their participation as “trouble-making” or are inappropriate in language or demeanor to staff. No association can afford to have a director, no matter their stature in the industry, who acts inappropriately or destructively. This is precisely why a chairman of the board exists. And he or she needs to stand tall when they are needed.
A great association can only exist with a great board of directors. The board needs to stay focused on the mission, and the strategic questions about the future, while serving as the sounding board for enhancing membership value. Making your board a great board is one of your jobs as an outstanding CEO.
Rehr is the former CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters and the National Beer Wholesalers Association. He is an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. Contact him at email@example.com.