How would you describe your board’s performance? Is it—

  • the organization’s greatest asset? They are wise stewards of our resources and visionaries who identify strategies for future growth.
  • a thorn in the side? They are contrarians lost in the weeds who impede our progress.
  • inconsequential? They are crickets, disinterested or afraid to debate and express unique opinions.

Most association CEOs would say that, from time to time, all three of the above are apt descriptions. In a kinder, gentler marketplace coasting was allowed. Less than stellar board performance might not have been an issue. But, in the fray of digital business, obstacles to progress can be fatal. A lackluster board can sabotage the efforts of the most talented staff.

Beyond personal enthusiasm and professional recognition, volunteer leaders don’t have many concrete incentives to excel. Except for officers, most don’t receive financial compensation. And individual participation is seldom evaluated in any meaningful way.

So how do you maintain the high level of board performance required to succeed in a disruptive business environment? Is it even possible in organizations where the staff has little control over who fills those seats?

You might not be able to pick your team, but there are plenty of circumstances that you can control. One of the most important is how you introduce new members to their responsibilities or onboarding the board.

Cultivate Diversity

A board matrix can be a powerful tool to point the selection process in positive directions. The matrix is a diagram that helps the board outline its current characteristics, pinpoints gaps in demographics or talent, and identifies what skills are needed in the future. The categories that are represented should reflect qualities that directors bring to the board as well as characteristics that will enhance the organization’s growth and development.

Preparing a board matrix is a learning experience.

Preparing this document is a learning experience. The executive director can help the board to see how, by selecting players with a variety of talent, backgrounds, and personal characteristics, they can lead more effectively in a complex environment. Even if it is not possible to perfectly match all the criteria, the matrix establishes goals.

This is an opportunity to look beyond the usual suspects toward the eclectic mix of talent that a challenging future demands. Although we are all more aware of the benefits of diversity, one of the remaining hurdles is resistance to representation from outside of an association’s professional sphere. The matrix allows you to explore creative options.

My colleague Joanna Pineda, Founder, CEO, and Chief Troublemaker at Matrix Group International, Inc. explains the need for a broader perspective like this.

“If you don’t have leaders with a range of professional backgrounds, there will not be a lot of new thinking. The average pharmacist, librarian, or dentist has limited experience with the challenges that are involved in running an association. It’s a good idea to include people from outside your organization’s playing field who can introduce a different point of view and push the group forward.”

Set Expectations

Once you know who is needed, you must explain exactly what the organization expects from their service both in terms of activities and culture. This seems obvious. But I’m surprised how many groups give values and anticipated norms for behavior short shrift. Don’t muddle trivialities, like how to fill out a reimbursement form, with significant issues like these.

  • Requirements for meeting attendance
  • Expectations for pre-meeting preparation
  • Financial and fundraising responsibilities
  • The importance of consensus
  • The need for confidentiality
  • Respect for the group and their time

Help future leaders understand what is truly important for your association from day one by emphasizing organizational priorities.

The chances that people are reading and absorbing this material are slim.

You can, and should, also provide written guidance. These are a few of the documents that can be included in online welcome handbooks:

  • Bylaws
  • Financial statements
  • Minutes of recent meetings
  • Committee descriptions and rosters
  • An organizational chart
  • A calendar of events

The chances of people reading and absorbing all this material are slim. That’s why there is no substitute for the impact of personal conversations. In-person discussions should occur both formally and informally before and after new members are welcomed to the board. Ideally, one of these meetings will be a welcome from the executive director, which includes his or her unique advice and views on board service.

Celebrate Success

When you succeed at recruiting talented leaders, share the good news broadly. Enlist your marketing department to craft audience-specific messaging for maximum impact. Don’t limit announcements to your website or a newsletter. Board service is an honor and a privilege. Feature new directors prominently throughout your social media platforms and send press releases to their local publications and news outlets. Include biographical information highlighting their accomplishments. Those achievements reflect your organization’s quality and imply a standard of excellence.

Tell a Compelling Story

Formal orientation programs are great. But an endless Zoom call where talking heads deliver reams of forgettable information is not an introduction designed to whet appetites. To bring the facts to life, tell stories.

Volunteers join the board because they are inspired by your mission. Give them a message to share from the beginning. Invite a new member to explain how the association is advancing their career. Ask a senior volunteer to describe how the organization enriched their professional life. These are kernels of truth that move people to affiliation and action. A well-produced video could also serve as a narrator, but real-time, in-person testimony is the more powerful option. Ideally, you might present both.

Use the Buddy System

Assigning a mentor is one of the most effective strategies to ensure that new directors get up to speed quickly. In situations where first-timers are not acquainted with others in the group, a mentor can significantly increase their comfort level and their ability to contribute.

Mentors can contact new directors before the meeting to review the agenda, discuss norms for behavior, and answer questions that might be awkward in a more public setting. A post-meeting follow-up call is helpful to explain confusing issues or address concerns. Mentors also can perform the very important function of providing background and color to the board’s activities.

A buddy system helps to reinforce the culture and model the behavior that you want to promote within the organization. To maximize the initiative, offer training on how to support mentees and advance your organizational values effectively.

Create Synergy

Excellent performance comes from boards that aggregate ideas to move forward with their collective best thinking. That synergy happens when people express opinions frankly and debate in the spirit of collaboration. To put your board on the right path, help new members to feel comfortable with the group.

Meeting icebreakers and informal social events are obvious activities. Exercises like the Myers Briggs Type Indicator will deliver a deeper level of insight. The MBTI provides an opportunity for people to discuss communications and behavior preferences. Boards that are willing to explore their interaction this closely will find value in a richer understanding of their internal dynamics.

Effective onboarding strategies allow you to identify the right talent, set expectations, and develop collaboration early on. By instilling the willingness to experiment and explore as a routine part of board service, you can turn your team away from the status quo and toward a more innovative future.