By Ken Cousineau, President, Delta6 Consulting
When the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Golden State Warriors to win the NBA championship last spring, there were many people who felt Golden State had more talent than the Cavaliers. When the Cleveland baseball team recently beat the Toronto Blue Jays four games to one in a best of seven series, many people asked, were they that much better than the Jays?
Often, when these events happen in the world of sports, the news media and pundits claim that the players on the winning team had better chemistry or the players on the losing team didn’t have very good chemistry. Simply put, in the examples above, both the Golden State Warriors and the Toronto Blue Jays may arguably have had more talented players, but the way in which the individuals on the Cavaliers and the Cleveland baseball team worked together, supported one another and gave one another the encouragement to perform at the highest level possible allowed them to succeed despite the superior talent on the opposing teams. This winning chemistry that was felt or manufactured encouraged each individual to use his talents to support the team and to do whatever was necessary to achieve success.
This issue of chemistry is often the seen with association boards of directors. Your board of directors is likely packed full of successful, talented individuals that have been assembled to provide your association with the benefit of their collective intelligence. Despite this abundance of talent, your board may struggle to achieve the results that you or they felt could be achieved. Your efforts to help the board work together to achieve great results may all fall short and leave you wondering why this is the case, despite providing the best governance model possible and introducing board leaders to the best structures, communication tools and professional support.
You have the talent, and the policy support. You have the tools and the belief in what you need to do as an organization. You have it all, but you just aren’t getting it done. Why?
Could the answer lie in board dynamics or board chemistry? In this case, the lack of progress may have more to do with the individual forces (members) that make up your board and their individual relationships to the goals you are trying to achieve and one another, as well as the impact of those relationships on what you are able to achieve. If your board doesn’t seem to be able to move past its personalities, egos and private agendas, what can you do to get things back on track?
There may be very little that you can do to make them change, but there are actions you can take to give your board a comfortable opportunity to move forward and implement some positive accomplishments.
To start, it is important to make sure everyone begins from the same level of knowledge and understanding with respect to the mandate and direction of the association. That may seem self-evident and relatively easy to achieve; you simply provide the members of the board with copies of the relevant documents and conduct a kick-butt orientation session. The meeting ends with everyone on board and rowing in the same direction. Supplement that awesome start to the year with a robust and state-of-the art communication program and a culture that welcomes and encourages new ideas, innovation and tough questions. Viola! Great board chemistry will be the end result, right?
Well, yes those elements are important and they certainly help to build good chemistry. Despite that, those factors won’t necessarily result in good chemistry or, to continue the sports analogy, a winning team.
The results that come from the activities this group pursues are more than the sum of the parts that you, as CEO, have assembled. It’s about the chemistry that has developed amongst the members of the group. There are no specific best practices to establish good chemistry, but there are a number of initiatives that you can organize, encourage or shoehorn into the board’s schedule that may help establish good chemistry:
- Make sure there are opportunities early on in the mandate of each new board to have your board members together in social situations – dinner, informal hospitality, non-competitive games (golf, bowling, cards, etc.). Organize these events to ensure that the individual board members mix with all other members of the board.
- Make it a key component of all board meetings and board discussions that all bard members are involved. Make it clear that new ideas are not just part of an acknowledge-and-move-on scenario, but they are discussed as possible solutions or new approaches to doing things. Make new ideas part of the agenda of the board.
- Have board members introduce themselves as part of your orientation session. Each board member at the first meeting each year will take five minutes to address their past, present and one thing they appreciate and one thing that needs to change about the association. This gives all board members a sense that they know their colleagues and lets everyone know a positive and a negative aspect of the organization, both of which probably deserve some focus over the coming year. Determine how the organization’s priorities and mandates fit these topics and spend some time as a board discussing whether these are or are not strategic or directly related to achieving the board’s objectives.
- Have board members who are experienced mentor new board members. They can also provide mentorship to board members who are having difficulty engaging or understanding the need to discuss issues with the board and then act collectively.
- Do team building exercises that are not related to the duties or objectives of the board and the association.
- Implement a “no bad question” approach for all board members.
Board dynamics are critical to success for any organization. Good board dynamics can be assisted by having good governance, clear operating policies, good support mechanisms and constant communication. However, chemistry, assisted by regular, informal team-building activities and effective mentoring, will help ensure positive results.
What happens when the board dynamic goes south, when a single board member decides that they have an agenda or an idea that will save the organization and guarantee their place in the history of the association while having the mindset that no one will prevent them from achieving their goal?
Well, like the sports team that has a single player who decides to play it their way rather than being focused on the team outcome, the outlier needs the team or a mentor to convince the individual of the need for them to use their talents to achieve board priorities. If that isn’t possible, it becomes disruptive.
In the scenario where this individual become disruptive, it is critical for the CEO to identify the individual, the situation and possible outcomes. Then it is possible to ask the board as a group to come together and sanction the individual or understand the issue and decide, collectively, what needs to be done relative to that issue. These situations can be disruptive and are often contrary to the best interests and future success of the association. If they are left to develop and become fact rather than conjecture, the dynamics and the success of the board and the association will suffer.
Board dynamics are the chemistry of the NFP world. When a board has good chemistry, achieving consensus and staying focused on priorities tends to happen organically. Good board chemistry protects the growth of important discussion, the need to honestly challenge the status quo and the forward progression of the organization with an eye on innovation and a healthy, but not paralyzing, respect for history.
Ken Cousineau, President, Delta6 Consulting has been involved in the operation, management and leadership of not-for-profit associations for the past 35 years, 32 of which were as chief staff officer of special interest and professional associations. The focus of Delta6 Consulting is on assisting organizations and businesses with advocacy of all types. Delta6 is also dedicated to innovative event design and management and providing short term management support for organizations that are in transition.