Monday, October 2, 2017

Board Succession Quiz

As I said a few weeks ago, another association has invited me to speak at their Annual Leadership Conference on the subject of high-functioning association Boards. I'm going to hit four subjects during my presentation: Board selection, Board discussions, Board decisions, and Board succession. Each one is going to begin with a one-question quiz, with which I hope to take the temperature of the participants in the room.

Here's the question I've drafted for Board succession.

Which statement most closely describes your knowledge about the people who will be joining your Board in the next two years
(a) I know the people who will be joining our Board in the next two years and they are already engaged in Board activities and decisions.
(b) I know the people who will be joining our Board in the next two years but they have not yet been engaged in Board activities and decisions.
(c) I do not know the people who will be joining our Board in the next two years.
(d) No new people will be joining our Board in the next two years.

The "right" answer, of course, depends on the specifics of your own situation, but I plan to make the case that, for high-functioning Boards, the correct answer is (a). Boards interested in increasing their effectiveness should be sure that the people joining their ranks in the next two years have been identified and are already engaged in Board activities and decisions. The speed of business, and the need for association Board members to make quick and meaningful contributions, require nothing less.

For my own association, the answer is (a). A few years ago, we created a structure we call Strategic Task Forces that have helped us not only identify viable candidates for future Board service, but get them plugged into Board activities and decision-making from a very early stage.

Our Strategic Task Forces are task forces of the Board, which means that all Board members serve on one of them, but they also very consciously include non-Board members from some of our most important stakeholder groups. The job of the Task Forces is to assist our Board in determining the appropriate metrics by which we will measure the success of our strategic objectives, in tracking the progress of those metrics over time, and in deploying the needed resources.

The real magic, however, comes from the fact that our Strategic Task Forces only meet at our Board meetings. The Board meetings themselves are two-day events. On the first day there is an opening lunch and a strategy briefing, where we bring all the attendees (Board and Task Force members alike) up to speed on the strategy of the organization, and the issues that will frame the rest of the Board meeting. In the afternoon following the strategy briefing, the Task Force meetings are held where the Board and non-Board members of the Task Force engage with the issues presented and interact with each other. A social dinner is held that evening, and on the following morning comes the Board meeting proper, where the Task Forces report on their discussion and the Board takes formal action on any recommendations coming from the Task Forces. One more social lunch as people begin to rush off to airport brings everything to a close.

Two otherwise difficult things happen as a result of this structure and schedule of meetings.

First, the non-Board Task Force members get an in-depth preview and orientation on the Board and how it operates. No one is trying to describe or present it to them. They are experiencing it, participating in it, in real time, with real issues and real decisions.

Second, sitting Board members, especially those on our Nominating Committee, get to know the candidates and witness how they perform and communicate on issues of importance to the organization. Do they contribute effectively? Do they have the necessary vision and perspective? When it comes time to select one of the Task Force members as a nominee to the Board itself, there usually isn't any doubt that the individual will make a positive contribution to the Board and its objectives.

Following the presentation of this material, I plan to ask the participants to discuss some of these concepts at their tables. How does their organization identify and engage future Board members in the activities and decisions of their Board? How might their organization start engaging future Board members in the activities and decisions of their Board?

Knowing that every association faces a different situation, I fully expect the most practical learning to come out of these table discussions, and the brief report-outs that I will facilitate at their conclusion. I can set the stage and provide some examples, but if their experience is anything like mine, finding their own specific way forward is something only they can do.

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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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