In a digital market moving at the speed of a video game, recruiting the right staff is a make-or-break activity. But what about the other half of the equation?

Most association CEOs don’t hand-pick the board. How do we bring novice players up to speed? What can we do to ensure they have the skills to understand a challenging landscape and make the wise decisions needed for success?

Lately, I’ve been speaking and writing about the importance of emotional intelligence and how the softer skills add a critical dimension to digital initiatives. As a guest on the Association 4.0 Podcast, .orgSource consultant, Sue Dykema, CAE, shared her insight on this topic. (The full episode of this podcast airs on July 6.)

Sue’s deep experience with boards and leadership makes her the perfect resource for a conversation about coaching new and more seasoned directors. She served as executive director for the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS) for 13 years and has almost 30 years of experience in the association industry.

Focus on Mentoring

Sue is a relationship builder. That curiosity and engagement with others are reflected in her love of travel and learning about diverse countries and cultures. “Mentoring is something I am passionate about,” Sue advised. “Whether it’s coaching professional staff or volunteer leaders, I find joy in watching people grow and excel. Providing personal support, fosters a culture of collaboration, inclusivity, and transparency.”

It’s interesting how many conversations circle back to culture and trust. I was eager to hear Sue’s ideas about the importance of focusing the board on qualities like empathy, self-knowledge, and strong social skills to build a productive environment.

“You can’t underestimate the value of the soft skills for an association’s board,” Sue observed. “Everything that organization does revolves around the strategic initiatives that drive the mission. Leaders must listen to all the stakeholders, assimilate their perspectives, and bring people to consensus.”  

Invest in Training

“It’s incumbent on organizations to invest in their volunteers. Leadership training helps directors to learn and practice the skills needed to navigate the complexities of board service. It gives them the tools to be communicators who can address conflict and understand the nuances of dialogue and discussion.

Leaders must listen to all stakeholders and create consensus.

“ASAPS had a leadership training program. Volunteers could join at any time during their service. It was a great way to give them new tools. More importantly, it was also an excellent opportunity to develop strong relationships and build trust early by creating a cohort of people who were coming up together. That sense of solidarity is even more important today than it was in the past.”

I agree. Collegiality and teamwork among directors are critical to effective problem-solving. I asked Sue whether she thinks the board’s responsibilities are changing and, if so, are associations up to speed with how boards must function in this new environment?

Meet the Market

“Responsibilities aren’t changing,” Sue replied; “however, the speed of decision-making and the complexities that technology brings to the implementation process create challenges we haven’t previously experienced. In this climate, the board needs to be agile and responsive. Directors must be prepared to adopt strategies and operations designed to address changing circumstances.

“In addition to leadership development, training in digital technology is also valuable. But it’s a two-way street. It’s incumbent on individual directors to follow professional trends. They need to understand what’s impacting their everyday world. They should be asking whether there are innovations that can be leveraged to drive the association’s mission, and they must be ready to seize rising opportunities or address disruption.

“You need visionary leaders,” Sue said. “The board should have a keen understanding of the organization’s mission, and the values and ability to envision strategies to fulfill those goals and serve their members. An open mind and a collaborative spirit are also important. Ethics is another essential component. Boards have to be transparent. Trust can be quickly lost, and that confidence takes a long time to rebuild. Along with that lofty perspective, there’s a need for common sense. The value of a practical outlook can’t be overstated.”

Govern Strategically

Sue advocates for pairing a down-to-earth approach with strategy. “it’s essential to have a strategic governance model,” she says. “Associations need to move away from bureaucratic, operational structures. The focus should be on long-term vision with innovation and adaptability baked into the cake.

Pair a common-sense approach with strategy.

“Boards should be tweaking their performance for continuous improvement. Many small adjustments are easier to digest than a major overhaul. Digital tools are essential to that effectiveness. But the technology should enhance buy-in and engagement from your stakeholders. That ownership makes people promote your cause and support your success.

“Your finger should be on the pulse of the average member. Ask whether you are effectively serving their needs. That is a critical check-in that needs to happen frequently. Short surveys or advisory boards are vehicles designed to provide feedback. Above all, strive for transparency and accountability to build credibility. That’s non-negotiable.”

Create Joy

“Circling back to mentoring, the board should determine where there are gaps in expertise and be responsible for identifying and supporting future leaders. They can be talent scouts seeking out colleagues with the desire and ability to give back to their profession and involving them early. The mentoring process, whether it’s formal or informal, cultivates the friendships and the connections that are a joy in life. Board service is repaid in personal fulfillment. If it’s not rewarding, people won’t participate.”

Delivering that satisfaction is another reason bringing the human connection into our operations is so important. .orgSource and other experts can coach leaders to be tech-savvy or better communicators. But when board service enriches lives on a human level, leaders find the enthusiasm to be charismatic agents of change.

If your board could benefit from discovering more effective leadership strategies, book time on my calendar to learn how professionals like Sue and .orgSource can help.