there’s this balanced input, and where people also have these
shared beliefs, common practices and shared knowledge. But
how much time do we have to bring people along, from that
shared knowledge perspective? How do we do it? Because
if we aren’t aligned from a shared knowledge perspective,
then you’re talking on different planes and potentially about
different issues—and then that’s not the kind of place with a
trusting culture, because I may not know exactly what you’re
Engle: One thing that we see that drives down the level of
trust in the boardroom is when people are focused on why
someone is saying something and what motivates them to
make that statement, versus what they’re saying. That’s a
good litmus test. If our hackles are being raised because
we’re concerned about the motives—the why—then we’re
not able to focus on the what, and that’s a major violation of
trust. So, a high-performing group is going to be very trustworthy, we’re going to assume good intent from you just coming into the boardroom—that’s a healthy environment, and if
you can’t do that, you have some breakdown of trust somewhere, which drives down performance.
Brown: That’s a good point: Part of the shared knowledge,
too, is understanding who these people sitting around the
Engle: Right, you have to build that bridge. That’s why we
encourage socialization and bonding experiences. The more
you get to know each other, you’re going to find something in
common, and hopefully you will build that element of trust.
Then you can have that why discussion: If somebody says
something, you can say, “That’s not consistent with what I
think of you. What’s up?” Once you have that relationship,
you have the opportunity to have those private, candid conversations to challenge each other without violating the relationship or the level of trust.
Brown: I wonder if there is enough time, given the frequency
that some of these people come together, to really be able to
do that? We’ve all been on boards where the chair shifts in
and out on a pretty quick basis, so over a 5-year period you’re
working with a number of different individuals who each bring
something different to the table in the way they want to get
work done and what they perceive to be some of the priorities.
Engle: It’s nice to
That defines the culture of that organization.
have a change in
personality, and it
does impact the
culture, but the
best statement we
can hear from a president-elect when we ask them their goals
for their tenure is, “To accomplish the strategic plan (or the
strategic initiatives) of the association.” That’s how you keep
continuity in your governance. It’s about agreeing on the ele-
ments of the plan—what is the work you want to accomplish
at that high level—so you don’t have this back and forth every
year with a new leader. It’s not about pet projects or initia-
tives that they want to introduce. It’s about thinking, let’s
make sure the plan is good, communicate it, distribute the
authority to accomplish it and then celebrate the victories.
Brown: There’s that idea again of reliance on the strategic
plan to help transfer shared knowledge or shared beliefs
about where our organization is and where it needs to go. But
what can be done on an individual level for board members
to cast new ideas, but also to validate that people have that
Engle: I think one of the best techniques to do that is to have
these generative discussions up front in the board meetings
about issues that are percolating out there in our community,
as opposed to ones that we know enough to make a decision
on. That’s where you’re getting your alignment for your future
work and you’re sampling the board’s opinions about these
issues—but in these discussions, you may also realize that
you likely have a biased opinion.
For example, look at the average age of the board or their
tenure in the profession versus that of the membership. Our
diversity in regard to age is pretty minimal these days; the
average age of our boardrooms is likely as old as me, so
you’re not really representing the average member. The program you conceive for a 50- or 60-year-old and their career
is very different than for somebody who is 30, for instance.
So, if you’re not casting that net far and wide for information
and discussion going into any plan, you’re toast. You have to
stretch yourself and challenge the board to investigate these
issues percolating out there, because that’s a starting point.
Then you can get these issues on the table early—before
somebody’s done something to you, when you’re able to do
something for you to solve it.
An example is a construction association that I was inti-
mately involved with years ago; they identified a lack of peo-
ple who were trained to install this very technical product.
the Ask Expert
Will Brown, Professor and Director, Nonprofit Management Program, Texas A&M University
Mark Engle, DM, FASAE, CAE, Principal, Association Management Center