March 21, 2023

Article at Association Adviser

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Rethinking Board/Staff Partnership for The Turbulent Twenties: Part I

Ten days ago, we observed the third anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic declaration by the World Health Organization (WHO). These last 36 months have been a time of great anxiety and sorrow for the world, including association boards and their staff partners. Throughout this difficult time, I have nurtured the hope that something truly positive might emerge from our shared experience of trauma: our community’s honest reckoning with the myriad wicked problems we face in this decade and beyond that sparks a purposeful endeavor to start addressing them.

Since this crucial process has not yet materialized on its own, we must be intentional about bringing it to fruition. I believe one way to focus our community’s attention, unleash its energy, and build momentum to move in this direction is to challenge the orthodoxies and imagine the possibilities of genuine board/staff partnership as a force for shaping a different and better future.

Rethinking Board/Staff Partnership

Over more than three decades, I have heard considerable discussion of board/staff partnership and its importance to association thrivability. Unfortunately, the ongoing struggle to build fit-for-purpose boards reveals that the rhetoric does not necessarily match the reality. As The Turbulent Twenties move forward, it is essential for our community to rethink the deeper meaning of board/staff partnership.

•Boards and staff partners must work together to overcome orthodoxy—The fit-for-purpose board recognizes that its relationship with staff partners must be collaborative, not adversarial. One highly-beneficial form of collaboration they can undertake immediately is uniting to defeat their common antagonist: the orthodox beliefs that may prevent their associations, stakeholders, and successors from thriving. This joint effort will require boards and staff to be indefatigable in building a shared discipline of thinking and acting beyond orthodoxy.

•Boards and staff partners must work from mutual understanding—The fit-for-purpose board understands that while it is primarily responsible for the complex work of stewardship, governing, and foresight, staff partners are responsible for the equally-complicated challenge of managing day-to-day operations under increasingly volatile conditions. Working together to achieve a mutual understanding of how their unique responsibilities reinforce each other helps to sustain a trusted and collaborative board/staff partnership and creates a more robust context for long-term thinking.

•Boards and staff partners must operate with interdependence—The board and the association’s staff organization are imperfect human systems striving to advance their associations into an uncertain future. Neither group is more important than the other. The two systems function within the context of specific roles and responsibilities and are inextricably linked. They depend on each other to perform at the highest possible level. Fit-for-purpose boards and staff partners recognize the critical nature of their symbiotic relationship and seek to ensure its resilience against external and internal disruptions.

•Board and staff partners must work to increase the surface area of attraction for contribution—In The Turbulent Twenties, associations must attract as much attention, capability, curiosity, energy, intelligence, and learning as possible. Leaving any of these invaluable resources on the table is enormously detrimental to the future of our organizations, stakeholders, and successors. Fit-for-purpose boards and staff understand that acting in true partnership makes it easier for every contributor to direct their personal attributes and professional capabilities toward growing the association’s purposeful and positive-sum impact.

•Boards and staff partners must help each other—No individual association director, officer, or staff member is alone in helping the association fulfill its purpose. In the absence of genuine trust, however, directors, officers, and staff partners may feel disconnected or isolated from one another. Fit-for-purpose boards and staff partners will work to deepen their personal relationships to minimize counterproductive friction and maximize their ability to help each other thrive.

Next Month

In Part II, I will share next practices that association boards and staff partners can work together to implement to create a real and sustainable partnership. Until then, thank you for reading and please stay well.

About The Author

Jeff De Cagna FRSA FASAE, executive advisor for Foresight First LLC in Reston, Virginia, is an association contrarian, foresight practitioner, governing designer, stakeholder and successor advocate, and stewardship catalyst. In August 2019, Jeff became the 32nd recipient of ASAE’s Academy of Leaders Award, the association’s highest individual honor given to consultants or industry partners in recognition of their support of ASAE and the association community.

Jeff can be reached at, on LinkedIn at or Twitter @dutyofforesight.