Where does your association fall on the scale from nerd to influencer? Could your brand use a Big Gulp of buzz? We all want more of the excitement that attracts followers and gets accomplishments noticed.  

Associations are defined by their members. And the people who have the biggest impact on that identity are the board of directors. If you’re looking to increase your organization’s vitality and relevance, begin there. 

I frequently advise CEOs about the need to rethink management styles to succeed in digital markets, or what I call Association 4.0 leadership. Volunteers are no exception to that rule. A CEO focused on analytics, AI, and automation isn’t going to pair well with a group of analog thinkers. The board’s mindset should reflect current business dynamics and its demographics should mirror the social and cultural landscape.

For some boards, getting to Association 4.0 is a heavy lift. I’d like to tell you that an update is optional. Unfortunately, a board that is out-of-step with current business trends is like a carbon monoxide leak—a silent problem that can easily be fatal.

If you’re looking to create an Association 4.0 board or a group defined by an entrepreneurial attitude, broad perspectives, and creative vision, consider these strategies.

Promote Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

When I began my career, the most diverse feature around the conference table was the color of the directors’ neckties. Over the last three years, the majority of organizations have stopped treating board membership as an exclusive club for the “cool kids.”

There is a welcome post-pandemic trend to make demographic diversity a top priority and to think of the board as a brain trust that represents the members’ boldest ideas and vision. In a recent survey conducted by .orgCommunity, Over 50 percent of respondents reported making diversity a greater focus at their meetings.

Everyone must have a voice.

Jacqueline Price Osafo, the first person of color to serve as executive director of the Society of American Archivists, made this observation about the environment. “My fear,” she says, “is for those who did not shift. For example, 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?”

Jacqueline makes a critical observation. Without equity and inclusion, diversity has no meaning. The goal is not just to recruit a group of people from different races and backgrounds; it is to create a broad forum of ideas and to ensure that every opinion is heard. Without that expansive attitude, even a board that looks like the United Nations can feel like a private club.

Give the Ys and Zs the Lead

Diversity awareness has motivated most boards to add younger members. But youth can be a stumbling block for equity and inclusion. There is a tendency to designate these less experienced directors as “juniors” who get seated at the “kids’ table.” Some groups make younger members observers, without voting privileges. Perhaps their newly minted professional status is the root of this tokenism. Whatever the origin, it is a self-defeating approach.

The power of a unique vision far outweighs the danger of a few rogue ideas or missteps. Association 4.0 boards give everyone the chance to be an innovator, especially the people who are the organization’s future. Providing early opportunities for a leadership experience that is not watered down or circumscribed ensures that the association has a strong succession plan.

Lest you think that the Ys and Zs don’t bring clout to the table, remember who they are. Being digital natives gives them a unique perspective that is naturally attuned to the Association 4.0 leadership style. These are advantages that outlook contributes to a board. 

  • Insights into digital marketing, social media engagement, and data analytics.
  • Receptivity to change and innovation, keeping organizations competitive and relevant in an evolving business environment.
  • Fluency with digital tools for communication, collaboration, and decision-making leading to efficient and effective governance.
  • A socially conscious and value-driven attitude, putting renewed focus on the mission and organizational responsibility. 
  • The global perspective that comes from growing up in an interconnected world.
  • The ability to build engagement when younger members see that their colleagues have a meaningful voice in the association’s leadership.

Encourage Dialogue Over Diatribes

Rich demographics and experiences are maximized when the goal is to learn from each other. The boardroom shouldn’t be a forum for personal agendas. Yet how many of us have sat through a lengthy soliloquy that wastes the group’s time and saps enthusiasm?

Association 4.0 boards come to the table prepared to listen and learn.

Association 4.0 boards come to the table prepared to put listening and learning first. Both are equally important. Creating a culture that embraces these and other Association 4.0 qualities takes time. But board development can start even before directors attend their first meeting. Assigning mentors to new members is one way to get that ball rolling. Mentors are a powerful tool because they can model the behavior you are seeking to promote. Once established, norms become easier to perpetuate.

Regular tutorials on cultural and administrative topics are another way to reinforce the idea that learning is a priority of board service. Now that we are all accustomed to using Zoom, it is easy to offer board development opportunities. Just remember to keep them short, fun, and engaging. Build in time for feedback and brainstorming.

Recruit For Skill

The best way to ensure that you pick the right team is to recruit for the skills you need. A board matrix outlining current expertise plus the group’s wish list is an effective tool. If you and your board do not have input into the selection process, share the matrix with the people who do. These are some of the hard skills that are desirable for Association 4.0 boards:

  • Digital literacy
  • Financial acumen
  • Public relations and communications savvy
  • Project development experience
  • Entrepreneurial achievements

While it will probably be much more difficult to screen for habits and behavior. These qualities define Association 4.0 leaders:

  • The ability to evaluate risk versus rewards
  • A strategic perspective
  • Willingness to experiment, pivot, and change
  • Adaptability
  • Creativity
  • Zeal for learning

And finally, this quote from Jim Collins says it all. “The most important thing to look for in a board member is character. Skills can be learned, but character is essential.”  

The dynamic surrounding thought leaders and influencers creates excitement and drives Association 4.0 boards. But in a business environment that moves at a pace we’ve never experienced, character trumps charisma.

Decision-making is increasingly complex and impactful. The association’s well-being rests on the board’s ability to make wise choices. You need the flash to attract an audience, but it is integrity that yields loyal followers.