Monday, July 10, 2017

Multiple Views Around the Board Table

At our recent strategic Board retreat I had an interesting experience. I was sitting at the head of the Board table, as I always do, only the person on my left was not the Board chair that I had worked throughout the past year with. It was the new Board chair that we had just inducted the evening before, at something we call our "Pass the Gavel" dinner.

He wasn't a total stranger. He's been on the Board for several years, the last few in various positions on our Executive Committee. If you're familiar with succession ladders, you know the drill. Secretary, Treasurer, Vice Chair, and now Chair. But the reason he had received the gavel the night before was because today's session was focused on setting our strategy agenda for the upcoming year -- the year in which he would serve the association as its Board Chair.

Like a lot of discussions at our Board table, the one leading up to this important decision was a sometimes fuzzy one, with different Board members expressing different (and sometimes divergent) opinions about what the association should be doing and how it should define our success. I'd seen our new Board Chair in situations like this before, and as before, he ably guided the discussion towards a concrete conclusion -- not something he had predetermined, but something that the table itself created, provided, of course, that it aligned with the agreed-upon strategic direction was had already settled on.

When the discussion was over and we had our outcome, we took a much needed break. Before our Board Chair could get pulled away I grabbed his attention and quickly sketched out a framework for what we had just decided around the Board table. It was something I had been quietly developing while the discussion had meandered towards its conclusion. I wasn't changing anything about that outcome, I was just putting the strategic decisions in a rudimentary operational structure that I thought we could use to guide association activities the upcoming year. All I wanted his initial feedback on it before fleshing it out any further.

He listened and looked at what I was sketching for him. When I was finished he simply nodded and said he had a different perspective. In two or three sentences he described an alternate framework that covered the same strategic bases but attacked them from a different angle.

I nodded in return, realizing that his frame made sense -- more sense than mine -- especially when viewed from the perspective of the Board members. And that realization triggered the interesting experience I referenced in this post's opening line.

My framework, I could now see with his framework placed next to it as a kind of foil, was built around how I would execute functions within our staff organization. It relied on Objectives, Departments and Programs. That's the world I needed to live in if I was going to make things happen in the association. His framework, in contrast, was build around how he would lead discussions around future Board tables. It relied on Goals, Metrics, and Resources. That's the world he needed to live in if he was going to make things happen in the association.

Neither framework was wrong. Indeed, they were both right, but for different purposes. But importantly, they were not the same. Each one offered a different view of our strategy, and each, if used to guide the organization, would require a different structure for its execution. One was about the staff and the other was about the Board and those, at the end of the day, are two different things.

The interesting experience came when I understood that if I and my Board Chair were going to employ our different frameworks in our respective spheres, that neither one of us would necessarily need to approve or understand the entirety of what the other was doing. To work together as an effective leadership team, we would only need to approve and understand the places where our frameworks connected -- where strategy turned into action, and where action delivered results.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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