Recently the chairman of a newly launched association approached me, frustrated that his board was becoming ineffective. Where the same board had been highly focused moving toward launch, post-launch it suddenly seemed to lack engagement and focus.
There are a few reasons why this happened. First, it's natural for any group to experience a let-down after a key goal or milestone has been achieved. An effective chair will recognize the need for the group to catch its collective breath before diving into the next phase of work. At the same time, though, that same chair needs to make sure a brief time-out doesn't become an elongated work stoppage. Once any group's momentum stalls, it is always difficult to ramp things up again.
Second, it is critical to understand that the focus of an association's board can (and probably should) change dramatically after launch. Leading up to the launch, the board has one collective goal: to make sure the organization gets off the ground. After that, the board takes on a greater diversity of responsibilities. This includes maintaining the high-level strategic direction, overseeing work streams, ensuring that the organization remains financially solvent, and so forth.
This sudden and significant shift in a board's focus typically presents several challenges. For one, the excitement of launch activities is replaced by the more mundane focus of operating an organization over the long term. Another challenge is that while some board members were willing to put their regular work aside during launch prep, their attention tends to (or needs to) return to their core work responsibilities once that particular (and exciting) goal is reached. Yet another consideration is that not all operational topics appeal to all board members. Routine deep dives into working group updates or financial reports may simply alienate some board members to the point where they simply tune out or drop out.
Addressing the Challenges
In terms of addressing these challenges, there are some pragmatic and proven solutions. Most importantly, newly launched associations should be encouraged to divide management responsibilities across subcommittees. This avoids forcing an entire board to mind every operational aspect of the organization, which is not only inefficient but ineffective. Look at the activities your board needs to manage and create subcommittees as appropriate. Some typical examples include subcommittees focused on membership, finance or general operations. Assign board members to committees where they fit best or have a particular interest. Make sure every board member sits on at least one subcommittee. Once the subcommittees are formed, let each group decide how to operate. My experience here suggests that subcommittees need to be told what their job is, not how to do it.
Should an organization follow this prescription and delegate operational oversight to dedicated subcommittees, however, some common pitfalls should be avoided. For one, boards should be careful that subcommittees don't become more powerful than the boards they serve. General procedures for subcommittees should be established, and each subcommittee should have a clear charter and regularly reviewed goals. For tasks requiring brief attention, short-lived Task Teams should be considered versus long-standing subcommittees. Another typical challenge is that, with subcommittees in place, board meetings can become an endless (and boring) parade of subcommittee reports. To avoid this, subcommittee reports should be rotated across meetings (for instance, the finance subcommittee provides a report every third meeting.) Or, alternatively, ask each subcommittee to provide short reports for each board meeting, but only allocate meeting time for those subcommittees with particular issues or proposals.
Finally, diversifying management responsibilities across board subcommittees is not a tactic reserved for newly organizations. Anytime a board routinely gets bogged down in the so-called operational weeds, it may be the right time to consider some targeted subcommittees. Whether it’s a new organization or an established one, no association can afford to take its collective eye off the big picture.