We’ve been talking about the connection between association boards and culture, and most posts have been organized around concrete tips:
Since we’ve delivered the tips, I thought I’d take this post to a deeper level and throw out an intentionally provocative statement.
Association boards routinely destroy more value than they create.
I am honestly concerned that statement is true. My data are mostly anecdotal, but they are also depressing. Stories of CEOs being forced to do work-arounds and devote enormous amounts of time and energy to keep their boards at bay and prevent them from mucking up some good work. Sometimes, I feel like we’re succeeding in associations in spite of our boards, rather than because of them.
I remember reading in the first issue of the Journal of Association Leadership more than 10 years ago a description of how insane our boards are. They come from industry, so very few know anything about running an association, and then we rotate a third of them off every year (so in three years, no one knows what happened four years ago), and even let the chair position rotate every year. If a corporate CEO was told their board would operate that way, they’d run away — fast. And here we are, more than a decade later, still doing it that way.
And for the record, I’m not laying the foundation for the “We association execs know what’s best, so just let us do our jobs” argument. There are plenty of CEOs and staffers who destroy value too, so we’re not off the hook. I don’t think the issue is fundamentally and “us versus them” challenge. The issue is the destruction of value is simply not on our collective radars. We rarely have an open conversation about it.
What kind of system have we created when value can be routinely destroyed but we can’t even talk about it?
It’s easy for me to say because I’m not the one who can be fired by a board destroying value. But maybe what this community needs are some CEOs who are willing to get fired, leaders who feel compelled to stand up — not from a position of ego, nor from a position that “I’m right and you must do what I say,” but from a systems perspective that says, “To honor our membership and the advancement of our mission we must be disciplined in maximizing the value we create, and making changes to the way we do things to achieve that.”
We need a system where we can call out board members when they play politics or when they’re not being honest about a conflict of interest. We need a system where underperforming programs are cut without drama and ego-based defenses. We need a system where board members and the board itself can hold themselves accountable for creating value and not destroying it.
I will admit I’m not entirely sure how we’re going to do all that, but here’s an idea to think about:
Let’s blow up the bylaws.
Seriously, open up your bylaws in a Word doc, select all and hit the delete key.
Feels kind of good, doesn’t it? Of course, now you have a blank sheet of paper in front of you. But I’m curious, what would you put in a template that we could give out to associations to represent 21st century bylaws? What would we include that would support us in having boards create value rather than destroy it?