Monday, January 12, 2015

Reflections on a Year as Board Chair

One of the things that came to an end in 2014 was my year as chair of the Board of Directors of the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives (WSAE). I've already written from time to time on how valuable this, my first experience as a volunteer Board member, has been for me as an association executive--essentially being able to see the world from the other side of the Board table--but now that I've gotten through a year as Board chair, it seems appropriate for me to summarize some of my important takeaways from the experience. Think of the following as my advice for any association staff person thinking of taking on this difficult--but very rewarding--challenge.

1. Time goes fast--and very little will get done. We've all heard it, and some of us have even engaged in it. The complaints that Board members don't do much, that they're disengaged, and come to meetings unprepared (if they bother to come at all). Well, let me personally state how difficult it is to get meaningfully engaged in an association volunteer role as significant as that of a Board member, while still maintaining the professional (and frankly, the more pressing) responsibilities that come with a "day job." A Board member that reads the materials distributed before Board meetings, engages thoughtfully at the Board table, and effectively follows up on one or two simple tasks after each meeting, is doing about as much as anyone can reasonably expect. In my own experience, that's about all I could manage before getting carried away in the swift-moving river that is running my own association. And in this reality, you have to temper your expectations about what can be accomplished. Diving in, thinking that you're going to help the association re-invent itself in your year as Chair, is a foolhardy perspective. You won't. You won't have the time.

2. You have to shape, not direct. And so, as a result, if you want to make an impact, you have to pick something and stay focused on it. And when I say "stay focused," I don't mean start telling everybody what to do. I mean, take some of the little time that you have and think carefully about how you can shape the way the organization works to begin moving it in the direction you intend. Remember that if the thing you picked is worth doing, the organization is likely to fight you on it. Not necessarily any one person or any group of people in the organization, but the organization itself--the system of beliefs, practices, and outcomes that are they way they are for some very good reasons. If you choose to slay a dragon that lives in that cave, be cognizant that the dragon is the way the dragon is not because it is a dragon, but because it lives in the cave. When your initiative isn't targeted at the fire-breathing monster everyone can see, but instead at the stalactites hanging in the dark from the ceiling, you have to stay focused on shaping the environment rather than dictating actions.

3. Don't go at it alone. But you absolutely can not do that alone. Working in a vacuum only means that whatever impact you do have will disappear after you release the reins of power that were temporarily bestowed on you. And guess what? The organization knows that your power is time-limited, and it will always have more patience than you do. So, remember that it's called a Board for a reason, and that it is the entity that really has the power in the situation that you've found yourself in. Even when you're the chair--perhaps especially when you're the chair--talk to your other Board members (away from the Board table is best) and find out what they think about your ideas. There will be a certain amount of automatic support that they will offer you. You are, after all, the chair, and they're secretly glad that the job has been thrust upon you instead of them. But they will have their own frustrations about the organization and how it works, and you will be far more successful as their chair if you champion an idea that they all agree with than if you pursue a problem that only you perceive.

All in all, my year as Board chair was a tremendous experience. I learned a lot about how associations actually function, and about what Boards can and cannot do to change things. As I recently did from a podium in a hotel ballroom, just before handing the ceremonial gavel over to my successor, I want to offer my heart-felt thanks to the people I served with on the WSAE Board. It's safe to say that they both challenged and inspired me to give more of myself to that organization than I initially thought I could.

+ + +

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

Image Source


  1. Eric, you were a stellar chair of WSAE's board. So glad I can get advise in person and via your blog!