When they’re fully charged, strong boards make great things happen. They use tre- mendous positive energy to address chal- lenging constraints and achieve ambitious goals.
Unfortunately, board unity is not standard fare. Because
confusion about what boards do and how they create value
abounds, splintered leadership is common, as are distraction
and dysfunction. For that reason, some executive directors
would be hard pressed to complain were their boards to altogether disappear.
Despite the harsh realities of board work, however —
which can easily stymie effective leadership — conflict often
fuels creation. To harness boards’ frustrations and make
them fruitful, executive directors should consider these three
common board conflicts, which high-performing association
boards can use to their advantage in pursuit of fulfilling their
unique leadership charge.
1. Representation vs. Trusteeship
Boards often struggle to define their role. Like politicians with
their constituents, some feel they were elected to represent
individuals, others that they were elected to serve the collective organization. Indeed, balancing the need for democracy
with the need for strategic decision making can be difficult.
This is not an “either/or” dilemma, however; instead, it is a
good example of “both/and.” A two-way conversation between
the board and the membership is needed, as it creates a
shared understanding of the members’ perspectives and
the association’s strategic direction. The board is not a customer service agency, which can be hard for new members
to accept. Once priorities and feedback mechanisms are in
place, high-performing boards stay focused on results, resist-ing the temptation to react to spontaneous concerns from
individual members. Board members are not representatives;
they are trustees, charged with the long-term welfare of the
organization. The board is the only body that can guide the
association to its preferred future.
2. Management vs. Governance
Diligent boards are passionate, knowledgeable and skillful,
ready to accelerate their association’s success. What’s more,
they recognize that they are accountable for their organization’s long-term performance.
Still, even the best boards have trouble balancing the
desire to help and be accountable with the desire to stay
out of the executive director’s hair. This conundrum hinges
on important distinctions: means (staff work) versus ends
(board work), board members as volunteers (task forces) versus board members as trustees (governance), and perception
(opinion) versus data-driven (fact-based) accountability.
To help them address these distinctions, boards should
consider the following guidelines for successful board gover-
• Association outcomes are the board’s charge. Boards should
be concerned with why, what and by when. The director
and staff, on the other hand, should be concerned with
how. Because it’s easier and more obvious, new board
members tend to want to do staff’s work. As new members
rotate on, however, boards should have a recurring conver-
sation about their direction, priorities and status in order
to clarify the board’s work and pre-empt the attraction
toward staff-appropriate tasks.
3. Today vs. Tomorrow
Although board members come to the table full of ideas,
focus and consistency are critical to the execution of the
thoughtful initiatives already in play. If the executive director is distracted by individual members, then the leadership
engine starts to idle. This is one of the central challenges for
executive directors, who are the liaisons between the association’s present and its future. They lead staff attention to
current priorities and issues while teaming with the board as
trustees. This is not to say that plans shouldn’t be dynamic.
As long as debate is grounded in consensus on the data that
matters most, the board can adjust its course as it sees fit.
In this way, the board can balance the call of today with its
responsibility for the future.
Board members come with unique ideas of how to best
serve — sometimes without realizing what it takes to fulfill
their unique strategic leadership charge. Luckily, with due
diligence on the front end, all the board’s energy can be harnessed to the benefit of the association. Tackling these three
conflicts, in particular — the natural, healthy tensions of
effective board governance — can help organize board chaos
into board performance.
Beth Michaels is senior partner with Primer Michaels & Associates Inc. in
Glenview, Ill. She may be reached at