Who’s Your Board?

Danielle Russell, CAE

In 2008 Richard Florida became a household name when Who’s Your City became one of the most talked about books of the year; the premise being that WHO lives in your city, very much shapes the success of your city. In understanding the city you choose to make home, you better control the outcome of your own life, so too, understanding WHO makes up your board will help you better control the success and outcomes of your organization.

Since 2008 I have worked with over a dozen not-for-profit-boards, and I believe that while personality plays a role in the success of individual board members, the overall demographics of your board will determine the board’s ability to get out of the weeds and on to the business of strategic governance. Ask yourself, Who’s YOUR Board?

Middle Management Vs. Senior Leadership:

Regardless of the nature of your board, and if your directors participate as part of their paying job, to support their industry, or to further a cause close to their hearts, beware a board of middle managers. To be clear, middle managers in this case are stuck in middle-management, not just passing through with a career on the rise. These are individuals who are accustomed to being told what to do, and how to do it, this is not a mindset that lends itself to problem solving and big picture thinking. Conversely, these worker bees are your best bet when your registration desk need staffing, your envelopes need stuffing, or you have some other task that requires more person-hours than your paid-staff have available.

A word of caution also, many middle managers do not feel in control of their work-lives and are the most likely to attempt to establish the board as their own fiefdom should the opportunity to seize power arise.

Senior leaders and future-senior leaders on the other hand, function at a high level in their everyday jobs, they understand the distinction between strategy and execution. These big thinkers, bring ideas, energy and resources to your organization. Again, a word of caution, as current senior leaders may have become so accustomed to having daily assistance that they may be more demanding on staff-time, or lack the skills or time to roll up their sleeves in a time of crisis.

A number of years ago a very senior executive at a highly respected Bay Street firm explained this to me: When he was in school it was thought that learning Latin was a useful pursuit as it would prove useful in the study of the law or literature. However, that learning to type was useful only if one did not intend to be successful enough to have a secretary. He was a highly engaged and thoughtful board member, but he simply could not be expected to submit a report from his committee unless I typed out a draft that he could simply edit as needed.

Paid Time Vs. Volunteer Time:

Most commonly seen in Trade Organizations (and, also at times in professional organizations), the role of a Board Member for one or more associations may form all or some of an individual’s job-description; I have worked with industry affairs professionals who spend much of their paid time contributing to various organizations of which their employer is a member. Directors who view their participation as part of their job will feel free to dedicate the needed time and resources to their role(s) on the board and on various committees.

Volunteer time is often dedicated to professional associations or to charitable and service organizations; while senior leaders and retirees may have ample time and resources to dedicate to their favorite causes, full time workers will need to be highly motivated to stay up-to-date and to participate beyond preparing for and attending board meetings. Association executives with truly-volunteer boards must work harder to ensure that their directors feel ownership over the organization and feel that their time and efforts are leading to effective delivery of value to members and/or the community.

Taking Credit Vs. Giving Back:

On some level each of us has selfish motivations for much of where we spend our time and talents, as such the motivations of board members to take credit or to give back are rarely mutually exclusive; however, each of your directors will be more motivated by one or the other of these aims.

Often, those who seek to take credit do so for one of two reasons; skill building or validation. Those who seek credit for skill building can often also contribute a great deal to an organization, they may be students, un- or under-employed professionals, or young professionals still building their resumes and networks. At the same time, those who seek only some sort of validation, be it awards, glory or control can be highly toxic to your organization, when their quest to make a name for themselves requires that the work of others go unacknowledged.

CSAE Trillium is fortunate to have a highly engaged pool of Network Committee Leaders and volunteers who understand the value of their Industry Association and who so freely give of their time and talents to give back to the organization. Often, senior leaders and retirees are most free to give-back, but in actuality, anyone who feels the call to contribute to their industry, to their community, or to a cause they care about, can be motivated to work to further your organization. Actively recruiting these individuals to your board will ensure a high degree of fidelity to the mission and vision, and often these individuals will be motivated to commit time and resources above and beyond the minimum requirements.

As someone who has augmented my on-the-job learning with my participation in CSAE and other causes, I have transitioned from a Young Professional simply looking for an opportunity to stretch my skills, to a more seasoned professional looking to contribute at least as much as the Association has given to me, and of course with the hope of tipping the balance much further in the direction of giving over taking.

Ask Yourself WHO’s My Board?

Nothing I have shared here is beyond what most of us know to be true, either by instinct or experience; however, even in succession planning we rarely give thought to WHO our board members will be, so much as the skills and experiences we may be wanting to round out at the table. Asking ourselves WHO our board is, can help us fix deficiencies, shore up weaknesses and leverage strengths, and, therein lies the potential for your board to lead your organization to do great things.

Danielle S. Russell, CAE

Danielle S. Russell, CAE is the Executive Director of the Ontario Provincial Council (OPC) of the Air Cadet League of Canada where she is responsible for the overall management and operations of the OPC serving over 100 Squadrons across the province. Danielle is a past board member of the CSAE Trillium Chapter and an active volunteer for several causes; follow her @dani__russell on Twitter or linkedin.com/in/daniellesrussell/.