The Five C’s of High-Functioning Boards
Developing and sustaining a high-functioning board is the key to long-term organizational success. Over the course of my career working with associations, I’ve found that there are five components that are a common thread among effective association boards: Composition, Clarity, Cohesiveness, Conflict and Consciousness. This article will explore these five C’s through specific examples of high-functioning boards that, despite encountering challenges, have achieved and maintained success.

1. Composition

This is about striking a balance between too few and too many board members, and paying acute attention to leadership appointments. Having the right number of people on the board, the right individuals in each position and the right process for nomination in place are the most critical aspects of efficient board composition.

Culture vs. habit

An association in the nursing industry experienced composition challenges as board members routinely advanced from one leadership position to another without determining if each role was even suited for them — secretary became treasurer, treasurer became vice president, and so forth. To ensure these positions were filled by the most qualified candidate, the association had to combat the culture of entitlement (board members expecting titles they hadn’t necessarily earned) and the habit of filling positions the way they always had been filled (based on tenure and not talent). As a solution, the association developed and put in place a formal nominating committee to interview and slate board members for each position. This has allowed the organization to put the right person in the right position at the right time.

2. Clarity

This involves understanding governing documents, policies, roles, protocols and expectations, as clarity in these areas fosters productivity.

Stay in your lane

An association in the medical field successfully overcame issues of clarity in an effort to make sure that, much like swimmers staying in their lanes in the lap pool, all board members understood and adhered to their specific roles. The challenge began when multiple board members were attempting to manage the organization’s accreditation programs. Realizing that managing the process wasn’t a board function, the association tapped into the insight of an impartial volunteer not on the board to provide fresh perspective and a proposal of how to restructure the accreditation committee. As a result, a chart was created detailing precisely who could and could not get involved with the accreditation programs. The association also outlined the responsibilities exclusive to board members and other volunteers, and the protocol for selecting an accreditation company. The board reviews this chart every year to ensure that it remains relevant and effective. These changes helped make the process clear to all and resulted in the avoidance of conflict.

3. Cohesiveness

While respectful of individual opinions and open to dialogue, a cohesive board stands and speaks as one unified body.

No stone unturned

A technology user group — which operates like an association and brings together individuals with similar interests in technology — has found success by going around the table at the end of every board meeting to ask all present to share their thoughts on any of the content that was just discussed. This process creates an atmosphere where everyone has a chance to speak up when they may not have done so otherwise. Because thinking doesn’t stop once board members leave the board room, the organization also sends a survey after the meeting to allow for additional insight to be shared.

In another example, an association in the healthcare industry found that trust, engagement and faith had eroded among its board members following a failed merger. Leadership challenges had surfaced as essentially one person — the association’s president — was running the show with little input from the board. This had caused many board members to become disengaged. The solution was to create a formal board culture statement that defined adequate and inadequate board behavior. This got everyone back on the same page, and eliminated segmented and secretive conversations outside of meetings. The culture statement also held people accountable if they were not acting in the best interest of the entire organization. And perhaps most importantly, it placed increased emphasis on making sure all voices, not just one, were heard. Like many measures, such a culture statement requires amendments over time to ensure that it stays relevant.

4. Conflict

Properly addressing and resolving conflict allows you to preempt cohesion issues that could surface down the road. To do this, a board must make an effort to understand different mindsets and actively manage dissent.

Leave it in the board room

To ensure they would work cohesively and avoid unnecessary conflict, an association in the legal arena called for board members to read, discuss and approve their operating values — a set of standards that guide behavior. They also conducted individual strength assessments to get a better understanding of how the various board members would approach conflict based on their teamwork skills, personality type, the way they respond to stress, what motivates them, etc. As a proactive measure, the board also stresses the importance of addressing unresolved angst. For example, it encourages one another to check in with a fellow board member if his or her body language seems off.

When one board member’s negative attitude was affecting not just the morale of the board, but portions of the association membership, action had to be taken. The board president asked the member to step down from the board and, while uncomfortable, it is considered one of the best decisions the board has made on the association’s behalf. Because the individual’s poor attendance was also having far-reaching negative effects, the board also implemented a new standard requiring board members to sign an agreement stating that they would be serious about their service and step down in the event that they missed three or more meetings.

5. Consciousness

Consciousness refers to being mindful and honest about the effectiveness of your board, and also about your purpose and function on it. This means seeking to constantly improve performance, individually and collectively.

Success can breed complacency

By not just recognizing what board practices and individual behaviors were most productive, but also striving to continuously improve them, an association in the credentialing industry made an effort to ward off complacency. This association discovered that the best way to do this was to maintain focus on high-level strategy and use self-assessments so that each board member could be cognizant of his or her own strengths and contributions. And after every new program, policy or initiative is implemented, a survey is conducted across the board to evaluate its effectiveness and make sure the strategy is sound.

When looking to recruit board members, it’s helpful to confirm that their behaviors and values are in line with the desired culture of the board. Exercising these five C’s and keeping your fellow board members continuously aware of their impact are integral to achieving and maintaining a high-functioning board.
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