Posts in September

Skilled Navigation for Associations

September 30th, 2015   •   no comments   

Benjamin Franklin supposedly once said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail” whilst Thomas Edison is credited with, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Both are catchy quotes, but do they get us any closer to understanding the value of planning? Learning from our mistakes is one thing, but doing only that would be a random, time-consuming, and even dangerous way to manage!

Rowing 8

Think of your role running an association as being the cox of a rowing eight. With your team-mates all powering away with one sole objective, it looks like you’re having an easy ride sitting at the back. But really your focus is half a mile ahead to the next bend, and beyond that to the finish line. Your team all want to get across the line, but you are the one making gentle adjustments to the tiller and varying the pace and power input to suit conditions, all with the longer view in mind. Make unreasonable demands on your crew and they burn out too soon. Yank the tiller from side to side and you collide with the competition, strike a bridge, capsize, or hit the bank. To win races you need an agreed objective, a strong crew, and a skilled navigator with a clear view of the course ahead and a vision of what lies beyond the bend!

Only trouble is, some associations lack clear objectives, or lose sight of them amid the pressures of day-to-day survival. So staying on track, let alone changing course to avoid fresh obstacles, is a challenge; new initiatives a test of stamina. So it’s hardly surprising that almost 70% of projects fail to hit target. But the reason they fail isn’t always lack of effort from the crew, but failure to do adequate research and forward planning. What’s needed are strategic objectives, wisely allocated resources, effectively managed time, and a clear change methodology. And perhaps that way we’ll stop trying to fix organisations symptomatically rather than systemically.

Of course, one of the challenges for bosses is finding the time and head-space to research and plan. And like-minded brainstorm partners! Or better still a skilled and objective third party to guide you through writing an unfettered wish list of the things you’d like to magic away. Having attributed a 1-10 pain scale to those issues, you can thin them out by trimming anything below an 8 to derive an initial agenda. Ranking these again, this time for difficulty between 0 (requiring an act of God) and 10 (easy-peasy), and having considered the ‘rocks in the road’ which will either block further progress – or stimulate a burst of tangential or transformative thinking to get around them – a final set of challenges will emerge.

Only now is it time to look at the belief system, readiness, and capability of your organisation. Break them into their component parts, and analyse the gaps between your ultimate objective and the organisation’s current readiness. Along the way you’ll also have to account for critical mass, survivability, impact on the team, and the impact on your membership and financials.

By the end of all that you won’t be in any doubt when somebody asks, “What is the process for accountability and quality of execution of your mid-term plans? Is there a process? Have you separated it from operational and everyday management? And, are the right people involved? You could, with equal confidence, break the familiar logjam of continual ‘circular’ re-examination of the same issues, that so bedevils so many membership boards! Or would that be too much to ask?

Reviewing your strategy and communications? Can I help?

Over twenty years’ association management experience.

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Michael Hoare FIAM

Institute of Association Managers

All Aboard the Association!

September 21st, 2015   •   no comments   

It may be flattering to be asked to join your trade association’s board but it could also be a very bad career move. So, before joining, you should conduct your own due diligence, and start by asking some probing questions.

All aboard the associationServing as a board member is one of the most challenging and rewarding of assignments, whether in the commercial, not-for-profit, or membership sector. But, while appointment or election may be an honour, board members have important legal and fiduciary responsibilities that require a commitment of time, skill, and resources. Prospective board members should do themselves a favour – and show that they are serious about the commitments they make – by asking some basic questions before joining any organization’s board. Probe the member who issued the invitation to join; the chief executive; the chairperson; and other current and former board members. Anyone with inside knowledge!

Start by asking for copies of the board minutes from the last 12 months and study them to see what has been agreed and achieved. You’ll find yourself defending those decisions whether you like them or not! Note how many directors showed up to meetings, and whether decisions were reflected in the company’s strategy and performance. While you’re at it find out what the organisation’s mission is, how its current programs relate to it, and if they have a strategic plan that is reviewed and evaluated on a regular basis?

Study the calibre of the other board members. Find out what experience they have, what they have done in their past careers and what their reputations are like in the industry.  Most importantly of all, check out the chairman. A board’s performance will reflect their talent and management abilities. After all, this person is the board’s manager.

The chairman should oversee each meeting, keep discussions on track and on topic, and recognise when there is an issue – when a topic is too big to be solved in one meeting – and when offline meetings, or further information-seeking sessions, are required. A good chairman will recognise when specific directors are struggling or not pulling their weight, and will take action. And when certain directors are overly forceful in their opinions, a great chairman will restore balance and ensure every voice is heard before a decision is made.

He or she should also be able to tell you about the structure. What about descriptions of the responsibilities of the board as a whole and of individual members? What about committee functions and responsibilities?  Is there a system of checks and balances to prevent conflicts of interest between board members and the organisation? And for your own peace of mind, does the organisation have directors and officers liability coverage?

Problems aren’t always visible from the outside. After all, a board’s job is to appear balanced and always in agreement even when it is not. So look for signs of dysfunction. These include regular resignations and appointments; organisational underperformance; the constant missing of objectives; and the CEO and senior management struggling for support. What about the board’s relationship to the staff – particularly the executive staff – and how do board members and senior staff typically work with each other?

Do a bit of probing into the finances too. Are they sound, does the board discuss and approve the annual budget, and how often do board members receive financial reports? Who does the organisation serve, and are the clients or members satisfied?

Once you’ve done all that, get down to the personal stuff.  What can I can contribute as a board member? How much of my time will be required for meetings and special events? Am I committed to the organisation’s mission? Can I put its objectives above my own professional and personal interests when making decisions as a board member? Can I contribute the time necessary to be effective?

If you can answer all those questions to your own satisfaction you’re almost there. Now all you’ve got to do is get elected!

Reviewing your strategy and communications? Can I help?

Over twenty years’ association management experience.

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Michael Hoare FIAM

Dysfunctional by Association

September 9th, 2015   •   no comments   

Sports Direct is facing heavy criticism in the press. Its board labelled as dysfunctional by the Institute of Directors (IoD) for failing, among other things, to check the powers of founder and executive director Mike Ashley. Apart from major decisions being made without board level consultation until the very last-minute; an atypical board structure; and unexpected decisions being made with no explanation, the Sports Direct board comes in for flack for its unusual governance. Have associations anything to learn from this example?

Dyfunctional by association

According to reports in The Guardian newspaper, Sports Direct`s chairman, Keith Hellawell, told a recent commons Scottish affairs select committee that non-executive directors were unaware of a plan to put part of the group into administration until the day before it happened, despite discussions with the administrator over nearly three months. Two hundred workers lost their jobs as a result. A handful of senior executives took key decisions without any discussion at board level, and one shareholder is facing legal action from Sports Direct after he sought access to the retailer’s shareholder register to gain support for a campaign on the use of zero-hours contracts.

Whilst the Sports Direct board may be an extreme example, I could name at least one membership association in a similar fix. So, with the effectiveness of a board and its members able to make or break an organisation, is it time to ask – how functional is my own board, and is it making good decisions? Membership boards aren`t exempt from failure after all!

Some forms of dysfunction may  be easily addressed but others can be much more difficult to resolve. In my experience, ninety percent of the time the problem is the wrong mix of people. They may have been  appointed board members because of their expertise, experience, great reputations and networks, and often due to their strong personalities. But this can sometimes prove a toxic mix!

There are numerous reasons why individuals sign up for board positions in the first place, and understanding these can go a long way to explaining dysfunction in the boardroom. Sometimes, its purely for ego’s sake, believing the role will look good on their CVs, rather than out of a true interest in contributing to the board and in doing their fair share. I know of boards where directors simply don’t turn up for regular, scheduled meetings. And others where they almost never read briefing notes. Plus, un-remunerated volunteers may give low priority to their duties.

Sometimes it is the inability of the chairman to keep order, prevent side meetings, and make sure all points of view are heard – curbing the bullying or garrulous, and encouraging the timid – so that the discussion flows and timely decisions are made. Postponement and procrastination are the enemies of decision-making. And failure to instil the principle of `cabinet government` – whereby the whole board puts its weight behind its collective decisions – can leed to a leaky and divided board. Directors must also leave individual self-interest at the door, acting only for the common good. Some trade association directors find this latter principle very hard to grasp.

So, a vital job for any board is to monitor  its own performance – with the help of an independent observer – to see if there is remedial work to do. The outward signs of board dysfunction should be easy to spot, and may include churn in the boardroom and among senior management; a CEO who struggles because of lack of support (a CEO running rampant can, conversely, be a sign of Board weakness); and constant failure to meet objectives in an otherwise healthy market.

The effects can be severely damaging. The business will undoubtedly lose good people and will make bad decisions. But there is no quick fix and severe damage can be done during the time it takes to remove and replace under-performing, dead-weight, or wayward directors. Nip the problems in the bud at an early stage. Don’t waste precious resources firefighting after the event – risking the loss of members’ confidence – with all that can entail in terms of lost revenue. Take action now!

Latest reports indicate that in the Sports Direct case, one result may be an AGM vote against the retailer’s executive deputy chairman by an influential shareholder. Where that will lead is not yet clear, but it’s a stark reminder that playing fast and loose with governance can have unhappy consequences for all boards – including associations!

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Michael Hoare FIAM

@mjhoare