Monday, February 10, 2014

Both Sides of the Board Table

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I'm just coming off what I think is still a unique experience in the association community. My own association held a Board meeting and Annual Conference last week. As the CEO, it was my job to lead from the staff perspective--frame, but don't decide. Speak, but only for the consensus developing around the table. And the day after I got back, I found myself conducting another Board meeting, this time for an association where I serve as the volunteer chair.

I've talked about this before, and about how serving as a volunteer Board member--and now as a volunteer Board chair--is providing me with invaluable perspective on what it means to be a Board member, and how I can do a better job supporting the needs of the Board members of the association that employs me as its CEO.

But this experience was different. As a Board member, the distinction between that role and my job as CEO seemed fairly clear. As I summarized it above, the job of a Board member is just about opposite that of a staff CEO. Board members are there to decide. They are there to speak their minds, irrespective of what other people around the Board table think. That's how good decisions get made. Smart people with different perspectives, but all committed to the mission of the association, offering their thoughts and allowing the process to find the consensus that is needed to move things forward.

But a Board chair that does this risks being perceived as a tyrant. As a member of the Board, his voice is just one of many, and as Board chair he must not muscle his view through the process that he can quite easily control. His job is to help the consensus-building system work, not use it to arrive at a destination he has already determined.

In this way, the job of the Board chair and the job of the staff CEO suddenly seemed more similar than different, more a part of a cohesive team than any kind of antagonists. And as I sat there at both of my Board tables, I was surprised to find myself relying on the same set of skills to help advance the discussion and discern the place where most voices agreed.

The view from both sides of the Board table then, once so different, is becoming startlingly similar.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at


  1. Excellent observation Eric. When teaching facilitation skills to association volunteers I find some of them are initially challenged when presented with the difference between facilitating a meeting to draw out board members' insights and perspectives and leading it toward an outcome they have identified in advance. I always try to stress working with restraint initially, using questions rather than statements, inquiry more than advocacy, distilling more than directing. A board or committee chair can always be (and in some cases most definitely should be) more assertive or directive, but that changes the relationship and dynamic in ways that can be difficult to recalibrate quickly.

    1. Thanks, Jeffrey. I spent too much of my time trying to persuade people of things they're not interested in. It can be a refreshing change of pace to facilitate!