Are your board meetings caught in a frustrating time loop? The faces change, but the concepts are entrenched. Nobody seems to notice that the same initiatives dressed in different costumes are masquerading as something new.

Tradition can be a dynamic legacy. But an inheritance of stale ideas sandbags growth and keeps value at bay. In the digital era, this repetitive thinking is even more toxic.

Most of the answers to today’s business questions involve technology. An analog mindset won’t produce effective solutions. A different perspective is needed. Meeting the moment requires an outlook that incorporates global trends but caters to individual preferences.

How do you push the reset button and start exploring other directions? Begin with this simple recommendation. It’s a shift that many groups struggle to implement. Pull the board out of the weeds and train their focus on strategy, where it belongs.

Replace Squinting With Scanning

The CEO’s job is to run the organization. The board’s is to be visionaries. They should be scanning the horizon, not squinting at the ground.

During a recent Association 4.0 podcast interview, my colleague Al Dea, Founder Edge of Work, explained this more contemporary attitude and positioning.

The board should be scanning the horizon.

“A board needs to be continuously sensing and receiving the signals about what’s going on in the environment. Then, they must respond to those cues in a way that is intentional and proactive. That duality of sensing and scanning and maintaining tight feedback loops is critical.”

Garth Jordan, CEO of the American Animal Hospital Association, talked about how that attitude aligns with the Board’s relationship with the executive director and the staff.

“We’re a board of eight. That smaller size makes us nimble. Our board’s primary role is fiduciary, and they also guide our strategy. We’ve incorporated the structure that many groups say they want. The board doesn’t try to manage operations. To me, that’s basic. That’s the first place any leader needs to start. 

“A board hires a CEO for a reason. That relationship must begin with trust. After we identify our strategy together, it becomes the staff’s job to bring that vision to life. We let the board know how we’re doing, where we’re succeeding, and where there are challenges. We’re open and honest about initiatives that didn’t work.

“The board trusts me to implement, and I trust them to be fiduciary and strategic guides. They give me and our management team the freedom to do the work. They don’t have a knee-jerk reaction when something goes wrong. They know that we’re going to fix the problems.”

Mark Soticheck, Chief Operating Officer at the North Carolina Association of CPAs, underscored that idea. “You need individuals on the board who are curious, not judgmental. They should want to know what you are doing and how you are doing it, but they must also trust in the CEO’s decisions and strive to discover how they can be assets and resources. Yes, they have a fiduciary responsibility, but so many board members have no experience running an association.

“It’s important to acknowledge that dichotomy. The board should stay in their lane as strategists, and management and staff must uphold their responsibilities to run the organization successfully.”

It’s not a coincidence that trust is a frequent topic of these conversations. The speed and agility required for problem-solving in fast-paced markets don’t leave room for wobbly positions or indecision. Leaders who are trusted operate in the jet stream. When board members have confidence in your judgment and integrity, initiatives that might have required scrutiny can often be expedited.

David Martin, CEO at the Society of Critical Care Medicine, explained the power that comes with trust like this. “You must have the natural sense of self-confidence to be good at and also comfortable being a CEO. So that you’re not constantly concerned about what the board thinks of you or always feeling like you’re on the edge of getting fired. 

“In any position I had, whether the board liked me or not, wasn’t the point. Whether they had respect for me and could trust me and confide in me were things I worried about and worked on.”

Generate Diverse Ideas and Opinions

Trust is also foundational to a newer requirement for success in the digital era. Ten years ago, most boards were mirrors of their constituents. As the world grows smaller, the need for diversity is increasingly urgent. Although there are still groups that look too much alike, every association is a brighter rainbow than it once was. Leaders and decision-makers should reflect those changes.

It’s not just a question of demographics. Innovation is the protein of digital business. The market feeds on a regular diet of unique ideas. To keep pace, boards must draw from a deep bench of both opinion and experience. And directors must be confident enough in their abilities to allow for frank and objective discussions, even around topics that may not always be comfortable.  

Ten years ago, boards were mirrors of their constituents.

Jacqualine Price Osafo, the first person of color to serve as executive director of the Society of American Archivists, made this observation. “Although diversity, equity, and inclusion have been on SAA’s agenda for a long time, it is a huge change that many groups need to address. We can’t just bring a diverse audience to the table; we need to make sure that their contribution is noted. Everyone must have a voice. We’re all invited to dinner, but if I can’t talk, what’s the point of having me there?”

Unify Through Purpose

Passion for your mission is a bridge that allows people with unique cultural and value systems to work together for a common purpose. Don Dea, Co-Founder of DigitalNow, advised. “Make sure that you have directors who are aligned with the mission. When people participate out of self-interest, it’s not a good fit. A passion for the mission and good listening skills are basic qualities. Leaders must be willing to do homework in order to be able to ask good questions.”

You might ask where technology fits into this picture. Do you need to have people who are fluent in geek speak around the table? My answer is it’s handy to have a few of those experts. But your board doesn’t need to configure a database or design a website, nor should they be encouraged to try.

If you asked me to name the most important requirement, I would say it’s the enthusiasm to learn—to keep growing despite challenges and to devour knowledge for its own sake. Tap people who are insatiably inquisitive and hungry for information. Look for readers and unique thinkers of all stripes. Find the humanists in your orbit. And seek far beyond your insular circle.

The intelligent outliers will bring an invaluable point of view. No board will have expertise on every issue that comes their way. Although technology seems increasingly complex, the path to wise decisions is straightforward. It depends on rejecting recycled ideas and looking ahead to bold new propositions. The requirements for effective leadership have not changed all that much. They have just become more urgent.