Monday, October 31, 2011

Race for Relevance is a Negotiating Position

There's been a lot of buzz in the association community lately about Race for Relevance (R4R), the book by Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers. I saw Coerver present its ideas at one meeting of association executives I attended, lots of my colleagues saw him present at another, and a third I'm familiar with is beginning to talk about bringing him in to address its membership as well.

And as I listen to all the talk about R4R, I've yet to hear anyone who has reacted to it the same way I have.

It's a negotiating position.

Think about it. What is R4R saying? What are the five "radical" changes it proposes?

1. Overhaul the governance model and committee operations.
2. Empower the CEO and enhance staff expertise.
3. Rigorously define the member market.
4. Rationalize programs and services.
5. Build a robust technology framework.

These are "radical" ideas? Really? Not in my world they're not. But I suppose there must be association executives out there to whom they seem like utter madness. Not because they are crazy ideas, but because they are completely impossible to implement. The governance models they're saddled with won't be overhauled, and they won't ever be empowered, and without those two the other three ideas have absolutely no chance of ever occurring.

But R4R doesn't just stop there. It doesn't just suggest these five changes in the abstract. It offers those beleaguered execs some concrete suggestions for getting the changes done. And in making these suggestions, it goes out of its way, I think, to be provocative. For example, in order to effect the first change, to overhaul your governance model and committee operations, it says you should:

A. Reduce your board to five members.
B. Force all your committees and task forces to be chaired by a staff person.

I think R4R offers a good rationale for these prescriptions, but on their surface I'm sure they sound almost suicidal. Especially to that executive who thinks the five original ideas were radical. I've seen the looks on some of their faces when these suggestions get made. What? their looks seem to say. They want me to do what?

But reducing your board to five members and putting staff in charge of your committees are, in fact, logical conclusions that stem directly from the "radical" propositions first offered.

What kind of board should your association have? One with fifty-two representatives (one from each state, D.C., and Puerto Rico) all in-fighting with each other and trying to represent fifty-two individual constituencies? Or a small, committed group of governance professionals, chosen for the competencies they bring to the table and their ability to stay focused on strategy and the long-term?

Who should be chairing your committees? Overworked volunteers with little understanding of your association's mission and less time to work on committee projects, or competent staff people who have the focus, consistency and political skills necessary to shepherd projects from inception through your association's bureaucracy to completion?

These questions answer themselves. But there are still too many in our community who can't get them done, who can't ever get them done. They see the wisdom, they understand the need, but they don't have the political capital necessary to battle the forces of the status quo. They need help. They need a negotiating position.

Not a five-person board? Well, okay. Then how about seven? Or nine? You do agree that our board should be smaller and more competency-based, right?

And you don't want staff leading all committees? Fair enough. So how about just a few as an experiment? Or one? We do have that one committee that hasn't had a chair in three years. How about that one? And if that's a no-go, then how about staff serving as vice-chairs, actively supporting our volunteer chairs with the organizational and management aspects of their committees? That would allow our volunteers to focus more on their professional objectives. You do agree that our committees should be able to complete projects aligned with our overall strategy and mission, right?

R4R is making a splash in our community. If you agree with its ideas but think they're unworkable in your present situation, maybe you just need to stake it out as your negotiating position?


  1. Hey, Eric, I'll be watching for your continued thinking on this. A basic premise of these ideas is that the CEO, not the Board, should be in charge.

    But the association exists for the members, so isn't it natural for the members (Board) to be in charge? Isn't the CEO just a hired gun? Is it really wise to give the CEO and other staff more control?

    The discussions will be interesting.

  2. Thanks, David. My basic thinking is that the Board and the CEO should both be in charge...but of different things. The Board governs and the CEO manages...that's one way to describe it. The Board hires the CEO, so I guess they are ultimately "in charge," but describing it that way oversimplifies how the two must work together.

  3. It's a partnership and it's not important who's in charge but what's important is that the important work of the association is getting done for its members.

  4. I agree, Ben, that it is a partnership. Too much thinking and politicking about who's "in charge" can be part of the problem.

  5. A major board/CEO issue is optimizing the association's human capital. Most don't. In today's challenging environment, associations cannot squander their human capital. We need boards that focus on their role to "direct and control" and CEOs that guide strategy and manage.

  6. Thanks for stopping by, Harrison. What's your take on my thesis? I say that your five changes are not radical at all, but the mechanisms you suggest for implementing them are intentionally radical in order to push people out of their comfort zones and create needed discussion around them. Am I wrong?