This is the first in a three-part series I will post in the coming months exploring the burdens that are (and are not) integral to board high performance. In Part I, I will discuss why it is essential for association boards to accept the burdens that are critical to the work of governing and how they can eliminate others by thinking and acting beyond orthodoxy.
As I write in my new eBook, Foresight is The Future of Governing: Building Thrivable Boards, Stakeholders and Systems for the 21st Century, “[a]t a time when the conversation about the future of work is front and center in business books, management publications and the media, association decision-makers must embrace governing as a critical form of work that requires its own process of reinvention.” A critical part of that reinvention must be for boards to accept that the voluntary choice to serve requires shouldering certain burdens that come with the work.
Some of the burdens of board service take a predictable form including, for example, the need to prepare for, attend and fully participate in face-to-face meetings and conference calls. It is the deeper, demanding and non-negotiable burdens, however, from which boards cannot insulate themselves out of a desire to feel a greater sense of comfort. For their part, association chief staff executives (CSEs) need to put less emphasis on increasing board comfort and instead concentrate board attention on strengthening performance to manage and capitalize on discomfort.
3 Board Burdens to Let Go
A different approach to reducing their uneasiness is for boards to let go willingly of burdens they carry as a matter of orthodox belief and yet are counterproductive to reinventing the work of governing for the future, including the following:
- The burden of tradition—Boards are not the guardians of the past, nor can they allow their associations to be held captive to tradition. At their most benign, traditions represent routine choices made under different conditions that have been have repeated and rendered sacrosanct with the passage of time. At their worst, traditions are a continuation of the systems of patriarchy and privilege that have always benefited boards. Indeed, boards sometimes use the need to protect tradition as an intentional strategy to slow progress toward the future.
- The burden of representation—Regardless of their structure or method of composition, association boards do not represent the interests of specific constituencies. Boards must ensure that all stakeholder concerns about the future receive a fair hearing and must listen carefully to their implications. Boards cannot shape the future according to stakeholder preferences, but they can guide their associations and influence their broader industry and professional systems toward a preferred future. In this pursuing this work, however, boards must be candid with their stakeholders about the complicated questions and difficult challenges that are a part of navigating the powerful forces of societal transformation.
- The burden of implementation—Boards must remove themselves from involvement in their associations’ day-to-day work, full stop. Not only does board participation in operations reveal a fundamental lack of trust and confidence that is profoundly enervating for both CSEs and their staff teams, it consumes the board’s finite attention and energy resources that should be directed toward learning with the future and integrating next practices to achieve board high performance. Board presiding officers need to keep their boards focused on the long-term pursuit of governing intent and avoid the distraction of operational administrivia.
In Part II of this series, I will explore the integral burdens of board service and discuss how all contributors can work together to create a supportive context within which they share the burdens of governing for the benefit of their associations, stakeholders and systems.