Associations Unorthdox Shift #6: Build a strategically legitimate board

This is the sixth and final post in my series on the six shifts presented in my new e-book, Associations Unorthodox: Six Really Radical Shifts Toward the Future, created in collaboration with CHIEF. (Please check out the previous posts in the series.) As always, I invite your feedback in the comments below, or you can join the Associations Unorthodox conversation on Facebook or Twitter using the hashtag #auxsix.

The Problem 

The true nature of the orthodoxy surrounding association boards is often hard to understand. While the size, method of selection and composition of boards, the role of executive committees and the nature of CEO-board relationships can look very different depending on the association, all of these choices connect back to certain deep-seated beliefs about how boards are supposed to function. Meanwhile, building a genuine commitment to future-focused stewardship remains one of the most intractable governing challenges facing most associations. It is a challenge associations must resolve to overcome. The failure of boards to prepare their associations for the future may well constitute a passive form of moral hazard. For their organizations to succeed over the next decade and beyond, therefore, association boards must reassert their strategic legitimacy, or risk losing the support of the next generation of stakeholders.

The Opportunity 

Developing a 21st century approach to governing associations is a huge design opportunity that depends much more on the mindsets of those who serve than it does on the underlying governing mechanics. If association leaders can develop a shared outlook on governing that is not captive to orthodoxy and embraces the importance of stewardship, it will be easier to design more effective practices and simpler structures to govern in a future-focused manner. Associations need board members who are selected for their skills, attributes and future orientation, not their popularity or political clout. Boards need to be smaller and more focused, and it is time to sunset obsolete governing structures, such as executive committees and houses of delegates, that displace boards and drain resources. Chief elected officers do not need to exercise executive authority and micro-manage their CEOs. They should focus instead on improving board performance. Boards and CEOs that can work together to engage in “the new work of governing” will demonstrate their strategic legitimacy, and place their organizations in a much stronger position to thrive in the years ahead.

Additional Thoughts

Some Associations Unorthodox readers may have preferred if I had argued in favor of the outright elimination of boards of directors. While that would have been a provocative suggestion, it would not have been a serious one. Association boards are not going anywhere, nor should they simply because far too many governing groups are underperforming, and the association community as a whole still regards governing as a necessary evil, rather than a source of strategic advantage. One upside to a world in flux is the opportunity it offers association boards to disrupt long-settled low expectations, and prove they are able to rise to the occasion and function as the strategically legitimate stewards of their organizations.

What is strategic legitimacy? Put simply, strategic legitimacy reflects 1) a board’s clear-eyed recognition of how relentless societal transformation is reshaping the strategic environment in which the association operates, 2) the board’s empathic understanding of the implications of transformation for the association’s future stakeholders and 3) the board’s commitment to accelerate the association’s internal pace of progress to help stakeholders thrive. Strategic legitimacy demands that boards consistently observe their “duty of foresight,” i.e., the responsibility to anticipate possible futures for their organizations and make wise judgments to help prepare for those futures, without nostalgia, myopia or denial. Exercising the duty of foresight is the antidote to moral hazard.

Whether associations are able to embrace the first five shifts presented in Associations Unorthodox will depend substantially on the willingness of their boards to reorient their organizations–and themselves–toward the future. This post is the end of this series, but it is the beginning of a larger and, hopefully, enduring conversation about what it will take for associations to flourish in the years ahead. If you have enjoyed these posts, I hope you will become an active contributor to whatever happens next. Stay tuned…

To begin making the shift to build a strategically legitimate board, association leaders can reflect on the following key questions:

+How can your association challenge its staff and voluntary leaders to embrace their responsibility for future-focused stewardship?

+What can your association’s board do to avoid moral hazard and assert its strategic legitimacy?

+What obsolete governing structures can your association eliminate?

+How can your association design a 21st century approach to governing?



Jeff De Cagna

Jeff De Cagna is chief strategist and founder of Principled Innovation LLC, and a contrarian thinker on strategy, business models, governing and the future of associations.

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