Monday, November 21, 2011

Things I've Learned from Being a Board Member

image source
I've recently accepted the nomination to move onto the Executive Committee of the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives. I started serving on their board two years ago, a commitment I made, in part, to observe things from the other side of the table. After serving as an association staff person for thirteen years, and now as a chief staff executive (CSE) for the last four, I thought serving on a board myself would help me be a better staff person by experiencing things directly from their perspective.

And I've certainly learned a few things. Things I may have anticipated before, but things that seem abundantly clear to me now. Things like:

Association staff are pulled in too many different directions. And staff that work for an association management company (AMC) are pulled in even more.

Maybe it's because of my background. I've worked at an AMC and now I work for a stand-alone association, so I've seen both models in action. And most associations in my experience, of either stripe, have too much on their plates. Their staffs are stretched too thin, their resources are inadequate to the tasks they set for themselves, and their goals assume an inflated sense of their own competence and abilities.

Boards are partly responsible for this. They keep coming up with new plans, pushing staff to do more and more without thinking about how the work is going to get done. Staff in AMCs typically have an even greater burden, since many have more than one board pushing them in multiple sets of new directions.

And yet, knowing this, knowing the true extent of what can and can't be done, CSEs keep their mouths shut, accepting more responsibility, and pushing more and more work down on the shoulders of their sometimes unsuspecting and ill-equipped staff.

Why does this cycle continue? Why is it so hard to have a conversation about resources--both those that are on hand and those that will need to be acquired if we are truly going to accomplish what we say we must?

Board members, in my mind, should demand it. They should spend less time brainstorming on what should be done next and more time thinking hard about how the stuff on the plate now is going to get done.

And CSEs, especially those that work for AMCs, should help them in this regard by being brutally (i.e., professionally) honest about what's possible and what isn't. If a board and its CSE can't speak frankly about the resources the association has and those it will need to acquire in order to be successful, there is little hope that any set of elaborate plans will be properly executed.


  1. Eric, you have identified something that is a major concern for me as well. And the reason why it happens is simple: the on-going frenzy around relevance. Association CEOs, fearful of the insufficiency of their existing value propositions, agree to take on more and more work to fend off "irrelevance" in the eyes of their most important constituency. This situation reveals the fundamental fallacy of strategic planning as anything more than a wasteful pro forma exercise, and demonstrates why traditional association business models create more problems than they solve.

    The relevance conversation is insidious because it reinforces the association community's deep-seated assumptions while failing to acknowledge the game-changing impact of the relentless societal transformation currently in progress. We must stop running a self-destructive race for relevance we cannot win, and start thinking seriously about what it will really take for our organizations to thrive over the next decade and beyond.

  2. Thanks, Jeff. "Relevance" is one way of phrasing it. So is, "Trying to be all things to all members." Whatever the label, I agree that association boards and CSEs need to focus more on their value propositions and reallocate their resources to best achieve it. Whether that requires a new business model is something my jury is still out on.

  3. Eric, it's not a label. The focus on relevance and being all things to all people are related threads of a bigger conversation that demonstrates the collapse of traditional association business models. Follow the logic:

    1. In a world of cheap and easy access to information and interaction through networks, a growing number of stakeholders regard the value propositions inherent in the traditional association business model as insufficient. The alternatives aren't just "good enough." In many cases, they are better.

    2. To counteract the perception of thin value and to connect with the greatest possible number of stakeholders, associations agree to take on more work at the behest of their board members, the one constituency to which staff NEVER wants to say no.

    3. Association business models depend heavily on human effort to function. The unintended consequence of accepting more and more work into the system is to stretch even thinner already desperately stretched staff and voluntary leaders who are unable to give the same level of effort to value creation and value delivery within the core business model.

    4. The core business model, already eroding from the outside as a result of the pounding delivered by forces of relentless societal transformation, also decays from the inside because there is not sufficient organizational capacity to build it into something stronger than either the good enough or better alternatives.

    I understand that it is easier to think about tweaking what we know and hoping for the best than it is to act boldly to defeat the serious challenges we face. Associations still have an opportunity to thrive going forward, but it will not come to us. We must go out and seize it.

  4. Eric, association professionals are trained to please their superiors - managers, CEOs, Boards, etc. They want to appear to be "can-do" people not "can't do" people. They want to keep their jobs (and AMCs want to keep their clients).

    So, they agree to do more than can be done. And their superiors then ask them to do even more.

    You've got to be able to say "no" and help supervisors - especially Boards - adopt more reasonable expectations. You can't keep quiet just because you are afraid of losing your job.

    CEOs need to lead the way and ensure that associations focus on the things that really matter. They need to talk back to their Boards, and their employees need to talk back to them.

  5. David: I agree totally. I make an appeal for just that kind of frankness at the end of my post. Thanks for chiming in.

    Jeff: I don't disagree with your logic. The fundamental question I'm still wrestling with is if it is the traditional association business model that's doomed for failure (as you advocate), or if it is just poorly executed ones.

  6. Eric, I'm not advocating for the failure of the traditional association business model, simply pointing out how unfavorable internal and external dynamics are combining to render it obsolete.

    What I do advocate for is more imagination and more experimentation in the design of new business models that will help associations thrive in the years ahead. There is an urgent need to acknowledge the new realities we face, so we can get on with the long overdue work of preparing for them.

  7. So, to be clear, Jeff, you don't think the traditional association business model should die. You just think it will.

  8. Eric, the sooner we accept that our existing business models are not sustainable and begin to experiment more earnestly with new concepts, the better off we'll be. Of course, I recognize today's strategic and financial challenges create real hardship for many associations, which is why I've never stood on the sideline cheering failure. Instead, I have been intentional about helping associations tackle these kinds of wicked problems productively and generatively, and I will continue with this important work for the rest of my career.

  9. No question about that, Jeff (your intentional approach to helping associations). I've learned a lot from our interactions, and always appreciate your willingness to dialogue.