April 18, 2023

Article at Association Adviser

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

In Part I of this series, I challenged the association community to examine its orthodox beliefs around board/staff partnership, rethink the deeper meaning of the underlying relationships, and imagine new possibilities for this collaboration to serve as a force for shaping a different and better future. As I reflected on the first column and what I wanted to share this month, however, I recognized the need to question my orthodoxy.

To truly advance our organizations into the future, we must expand our perspectives on board/staff partnership to include the significant contributions made by association committees. In most associations, committees regularly collaborate with both boards and staff, especially when committee work connects directly with board and staff partner priorities. Unfortunately, these collaborations are often ineffective because the partners have not designed the appropriate “next practices” to facilitate a holistic approach.

Board/Committee/Staff Partnership Next Practices

As I wrote in my September 2022 column on the board’s duty of foresight, “[n]ext practices are forward-looking approaches and ideas designed to challenge and liberate our community from its orthodox beliefs while creating new habits of mind among association decision-makers.” Below are five next practices for board/committee/staff partnership that will help build momentum for achieving positive-sum outcomes:

•Co-create trusted collaboration—Every interaction among boards, committees, and staff partners is an opportunity to earn mutual trust and prevent the loss of trust. The three partners can co-create capable and trusted collaboration when strengthening trust is an ongoing and organic process.

Co-creating trusted collaboration must be a multilateral effort in which the board, committees, and staff partners participate as equals. All three underlying partnerships (board/committees, board/staff, and committees/staff) function with asymmetric levels of authority, collegiality, confidentiality, influence, information access, and transparency. Through a sustained co-creative effort, boards, committees, and staff partners can develop an empathic understanding of how to shape these factors to enhance, rather than undermine, their collaboration.

•Nurture stewardship responsibility—Committees and staff partners make vital contributions to board stewardship. Through their collective work, boards, committees, and staff partners must maintain a strong focus on their common interest to leave their associations better than how they found them for the benefit of stakeholders and successors.

While the board is every association’s primary stewardship group, all stakeholders can contribute to the work of stewardship. A critical factor in establishing a high level of shared stewardship responsibility is ensuring meaningful transparency among boards, committees, and staff partners while respecting the need for confidentiality.

•Coordinate consistent information flow—Boards, committees, and staff partners must stay in ongoing dialogue about their associations’ current conditions and emerging futures. Through careful preparation and effective coordination, boards, committees, and staff partners can establish clear channels for sharing information and inclusive approaches for providing all partners with the information they need to sustain progress on crucial conversations and essential actions.

Strengthening board performance requires committees and staff partners to make the best use of the board’s available attention resources by framing information in a “board-ready” manner, i.e., the information delivers the requisite content and context the board needs to act. Similarly, facilitating the best possible contributions from committees and staff partners requires the board to communicate its intentions and actions in a clear, reasoned, and thoughtful way.

•Establish “dissent equity”—For boards, committees, and staff partners, reaching mutual agreement on what constitutes “board-ready” information must include using dissent as a resource to facilitate intentional learning and effective decision-making. Many boards, committees, and staff partners fear dissent because of the orthodox belief that it will disrupt their shared work and damage interpersonal relationships. As the three partners grapple with increasingly complex questions, however, dissent will emerge organically and with greater frequency.

To deepen the beneficial impact of dissent as a resource, boards, committees, and staff can decide that all partners have “dissent equity,” i.e., the equitable opportunity to dissent productively—regardless of the inherent asymmetries in their authority or status—using a clear structure of options for expressing their divergent views respectfully and beneficially.

•Develop a robust orientation to risk—Building on their coordination of information flow, boards, committees, and staff partners must cooperate to identify and assess existing and emerging risks in their associations’ increasingly complex operating environments. Through ongoing listening and learning, boards, committees, and staff partners can undertake disciplined sense-making, meaning-making, and decision-making to investigate and address risk as they strive to create short-term value and long-term thrivability.

Risk assessment and mitigation are fundamental elements of trusted collaboration among boards, committees, and staff partners. Working together, the three groups can develop an integrated approach for examining risk factors, including the detrimental impact of orthodox beliefs, that will benefit decision-making and implementation.

Next Month

As the global interest in ChatGPT and other so-called “generative AI” tools intensifies, I will begin a two-part series on association boards and technological harm next month. To put these upcoming columns in context, I hope you will read the open letter on generative AI I released earlier this month. Thank you, and 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.