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Using the 5 Cs as a Roadmap to Success
An important measure of the strength of a board is how its actions connect to the association’s strategic objectives and its mission. The foundation for gaining this understanding is built on the five Cs of high-functioning boards — composition, consciousness, clarity, conflict, and cohesiveness. When boards achieve alignment with the five Cs, they are more likely to be successful in reaching their goals and achieving their missions. Denise Roosendaal, CAE, executive director at the Institute For Credentialing Excellence, provided some examples from her career in association management where boards used the five Cs as a guide to re-focus their efforts and resolve issues. Their journeys may help provide a roadmap for other associations to drive alignment with the 5 Cs.
Composition: The Matrix
Board composition refers to having the right number of board members, the right individuals, and the right process for nominating volunteer leaders to the board. Roosendaal worked with an association that realized its board composition was out of alignment because the nominating process wasn’t bringing forth enough nominees with skills that aligned with its strategic direction. “The board decided to think thoughtfully around what it needed to accomplish in the strategic plan,” said Roosendaal. Board members looked at the major goals of the plan and realized the board lacked certain skills and expertise needed to achieve some of them. That led to the creation of a matrix that listed the skills and characteristics that best aligned with the strategic plan — along with other characteristics of good leadership (such as critical thinking, stewardship, and experience). The board called these “trending characteristics.”

“For example, one year they found they needed to get more adept at advocacy, so that was one of the trending characteristics,” said Roosendaal. “Another year they needed someone with an understanding of the international market for accreditation and standards.” She said aligning the board’s composition to the strategic plan was a watershed moment. The nominating committee — with a charge to seek a balance in the slate on attributes such as gender, diversity, demographic, industry representation, and other types of balance — used a rating system the board developed within the matrix to evaluate candidates and build its slate.
Consciousness: Post-Meeting Survey
Consciousness refers to being mindful and honest about board effectiveness. It also includes a commitment to continuous improvement. Roosendaal worked with an organization that wanted to improve its performance, so it implemented a new practice for self-evaluation. “After each meeting, they would go around the board table discussing how the meeting went,” said Roosendaal. “They’d talk about how they can better prepare both individually and collectively. They’d talk about the agenda and the reading materials. Are there any improvements in the process to incorporate for the next meeting?” After that live critique session, the board followed up with a survey, which allowed board members to expound upon their feedback and express any additional viewpoints. They used the compiled information as part of a yearly review to rate the board’s performance and determine the areas that needed improvement. While the post-meeting survey is just one example of a tool that can be used to measure a board’s performance, it yielded some actionable results.

One change, for example, stemmed from feedback that some board members thought the existing framework didn’t adequately prepare them for the meetings. Even though they received the meeting materials in advance, they were overwhelmed and requested guidance regarding the key strategic questions they should prepare for. “The staff started providing a one-page summarization for each of the discussion items,” explained Roosendaal. It outlined the topic, the history, and the critical questions to be addressed. “It put it all on one-page so board members could easily gather their thoughts and figure out what kind of input they could offer,” she said.

Clarity, Conflict, and Cohesiveness: Dealing with Debate
Dissent is necessary for high-functioning boards; however, there is a fine line between disagreement and dysfunction. Thus, boards need a process to work through strain and conflict. Roosendaal worked with an organization that had a hard time being comfortable with conflict during face-to-face meetings. It began to eat away at the board members’ ability to debate and make decisions.
This led to a serious discussion about clarity. The board realized that the conflict could be resolved if there was more clarity about the desired board culture. So, the board created a culture statement that got very specific about appropriate and inappropriate board behavior. The culture statement was incorporated into the materials for every board meeting as a reminder how the board should conduct itself, and it helped pinpoint what was causing the conflict.
The board also realized that it didn’t thrive when all board members were debating issues during the meeting. Conversations got unwieldy and were often heated. The board concluded that it would be better to divide up the agenda to have small-group discussions with each group presenting its view to the full board. The small groups debated the issue. The large group focused on consensus building. This created an atmosphere of cohesiveness. A cohesive board is one that invites participation from all board members and respects all voices, but ultimately reaches consensus and speaks with one voice.

Through this process, the board also gained clarity on how it made — or didn’t make, as it were — decisions. Long debates overshadowed decision-making, so the board re-engineered the agenda to reserve time for important decisions. Each key issue was given a timeline to allow one or two meetings for discussion, and then one for a decision. The issue was fully vetted before the decision was made. “The board set it up so board members knew exactly when a decision was needed. Thus, they knew they had to gather information and ask questions in advance. It was very helpful to set the framework and create peer accountability,” said Roosendaal.
These are just a few examples of how associations used the five Cs as a roadmap to improve their performance and gain alignment with their goals and missions. Boards may be able to better recognize problems by viewing them through this lens so they can then take the necessary corrective actions.
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Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for 70 years.


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