This is the third in a three-part series exploring the burdens that are (and are not) integral to board high performance. (Please read Part 1 and Part 2.) In this final part of the series, I will examine how today’s association boards continue to carry a burden created by their predecessors and explore what today’s boards must do to eliminate that burden for their successors.
The Burden of Governing Debt
For decades, far too many association boards have opted to preserve the past at the expense of the future, practice politics instead of inclusion and prioritize operations over innovation. The persistent weakening of legacy governing approaches under the unforgiving conditions of intensifying societal transformation is mostly to blame for this situation, but the scores of directors who preceded today’s boards cannot escape all responsibility for creating the burden of “governing debt” that has been passed on unabated to their successors.
Governing debt is the accrued constraints, disadvantages and obstacles associations encounter due to the failure of their boards over time to prepare for the future. Some governing debt takes a tangible form, including outdated policies, processes and structures that place artificial and harmful limitations on the ability of associations to adapt to disruptive shifts in the broader environment. As an intangible element of the context in which all associations operate, governing debt reinforces the influence and impact of orthodoxy, feeds inertia and undermines the future focus of board decision-making. In addition to the indirect cost of missed opportunities, by severely slowing the pace of investment in building essential capabilities including the implementation of powerful technologies, governing debt has made building the long-term thrivability of associations both far more complicated and much more expensive.
Eliminating Governing Debt for Successors
Today’s association boards must carry the burden of governing debt because a long line of predecessors chose to defer various difficult, possibly unpopular, and yet vital decisions that could have strengthened their organizations for the future. Many of those directors were unable to recognize and appreciate the unintended consequences of their inaction at the time because they operated within governing systems that were not designed to value foresight. While this may explain the breakdown of past stewardship, it should not excuse it. Instead, it must serve as a cautionary note to current directors who cannot credibly rationalize the continued deferral of hard choices by pleading ignorance of the profound and potentially transformative implications of the emerging challenges their associations and stakeholders are already confronting.
To begin eliminating governing debt for their successors, today’s boards can begin to make sense and make meaning around its deeper impact by asking three questions:
- What constraints, disadvantages and obstacles is our association encountering today because our predecessors failed to prepare our association for the future?
- What constraints, disadvantages and obstacles will our successors inherit from us because we are deferring critical decisions about how to prepare our association for the future?
- What difficult decisions are we prepared to make today that will benefit our successors and stakeholders more than they benefit us?
These questions offer a simple framework for pursuing the difficult yet crucial conversations that all association boards must have about making a genuine commitment to stewardship, governing and foresight as they, their organizations and their stakeholders grapple with growing adversity in the years ahead.
Reflecting on the Board’s Burdens
The core purpose of this series is to remind all governing contributors that board service is a serious commitment that cannot be made lightly. Associations demand too little from their boards, and expect too much from their chief staff executives who fill the void when boards underperform. It is imperative that all association boards strengthen their performance by letting go of unnecessary burdens, accepting their essential burdens and concentrating on how they can act to retire the governing debt that will otherwise undercut their successors and irrevocably damage their associations.
Next Column in January 2019
After taking next month off, The Duty of Foresight column will return in January 2019 with Part I of a new two-part series, “Future Ready, Not Future Proof,” in which I will share foundational principles for building a future-ready association.