Redrawing Lines

This summer I have the honor of working in-person with a number of our affiliates at their board retreats after a couple of years of largely virtual meetings. It’s gratifying to see the discussion shift from surviving the COVID-19 disruption to redefining our work as society learns to manage and live with the virus. Here are twelve takeaways for your consideration:

Flip the Equation
We’re still member organizations, but we’re no longer talking about how to attract members. The value proposition has shifted to why educators should hire us to work for them. Educators expect personalized, responsive support that helps them solve specific problems and chart their progress toward their professional goals. If we don’t meet their expectations, they won’t be back.

As each board discussed this, the room got uneasily quiet. What is the job that teachers and administrators hire us to do? The answer differs from affiliate to affiliate, but without this new understanding it is easy to default to past practices. Don’t begin planning for the coming year until your board knows its answer.

Free Yourselves
Boards tend to hold on to past success even when they are being forced to change, and the reality is things were changing long before the pandemic. Web technologies democratized information and decentralized access to resources, the rising generation of professionals formed their own learning communities rather than joining traditional member organizations, and titles and experience became less valued as everyone now expects to lead from wherever they sit in their organization.

Our affiliates have to shed old ways of thinking to address these realities and remain relevant and viable. If board members can’t get out of their own way, they won’t be able to get out of the organization’s way, either. They need to shake off their history or step down from the board, placing the best interests of the organization before their own.

Boards are Human Things
Small or large, the personalities that comprise a board factor into its ability to move forward. Some board members are visionaries, while others are doers who thrive down in the details. And then there are those rare leaders who have it all going on. As leaders, it’s critical to know the players and the dynamics on your board. Working around strong, difficult or ineffective personalities to avoid conflict is not an option boards can afford in this time of transformation.

If you’ve put in the time creating close-knit cohesive relationships on your board over the years you have built in the ability to address the conflicts and roadblocks inherent in the human condition, but if you’re just starting now it will take time that you may not have. Board members are almost always relieved when the team finally discusses Jim Collins’ concept of getting the right people in the right seats on the bus. It tends to work out for everyone involved.

Level-Set Expectations
Take a realistic assessment of your organization’s health. How well have you survived the past couple of years? What has become stronger? What has been lost? Are you facing an existential crisis? In multiple cases this summer, boards began their planning retreats examining worst-case scenarios, and once they looked openly at their situation it freed them to discuss their options without unspoken fears and reservations.

In one case, the board president began the meeting thinking she was throwing me “a curve ball” by asking what ground zero looks like for her board. I responded plainly and candidly and she was relieved to realize it wasn’t a curve ball at all. It’s a necessary discussion to be had by the entire board and a trusted, objective third party, and as a result the board in question finished their retreat feeling energized and excited about the coming year.

Now is the Time for Honest Conversations
To move forward fresh and ready for new opportunities, boards need to have these fearless discussions about their status and about their potential. How have we fared well the past two years? Where have we fallen short? If you’ve cut spending to adjust for incoming revenue, how do you begin to build out a calendar that begins to fuel your economic engine once again?

But it’s not just a reporting out of the  numbers. Are there competing agendas on the board? Unspoken, unresolved issues from the past? Commercial interests or entangling alliances with competitors? Unrealistic expectations that need to be tamped down? Does everyone understand and agree that there is no going back to association life pre-COVID? These things must be resolved before a board is able to look to its future.

Reestablish Boundaries
These past few years have had boards scrambling to keep the doors open and serving their core constituents even as the ground shifted beneath their feet. In the process gaps, inequities and inefficiencies became glaringly evident. When someone dropped the ball, someone else picked it up and continued to drive to the hoop. When costs had to be cut, programs and services suffered and board members who believed strongly in a certain aspect of the work put it on their back and carried it forward themselves.

Individually championing the work of the association during difficult times can be a heroic act but it’s not sustainable. As we begin to manage living with the virus, healthy organizations are reviewing and resetting boundaries for each role on the board, putting in place structures and processes that ensure viability regardless of the names and faces currently filling seats.

Build New Consensus
Accomplishing these tasks, the board is ready to identify and agree on priorities that address the new needs and expectations of its audience. What are their opportunities for growth? What are the pain points? Are there new opportunities to partner with likeminded organizations across the education, higher education, corporate, government and nonprofit sectors? Which of these help you build longterm for the future?

Affiliates did not need a brain dump to consider their options. They have had their finger on the pulse of education and the nonprofit world throughout the pandemic, and they readily discussed, sorted through and agreed upon areas to pursue. In each case, boards were of one mind in charting a vision for the next year.

Choose One Focus
Every board has a short list of initiatives and goals in their strategic plan, and every one of them is worthy in its own right. But in an era of finite options, successful boards identify a single focus at which they target all their energies. Not that there aren’t multiple facets to effective planning, but in this critical moment boards need a clear roadmap that pushes them forward to a thriving new prosperity with milestones to help track the journey.

Anything that isn’t about this single focus is not pursued. No second-guessing. No opportunist maneuvering. No flash-in-the-pan distractions. Just a single-minded commitment to bring the organization to an agreed-upon place on the post-pandemic landscape. A board that can maintain its determination to achieve their consensus outcome is well-positioned to succeed.

Reset Roles
New work requires a fresh look at board functions. Traditionally boards were organized by roles and geography. To reflect their new singular focus, boards now need to redefine each seat based on the task at hand. District rep? What talents do you bring to the new goal? Grant admin? How do funding requirements align with the coming year’s focus? Partner liaison? How can you bring your resources to bear? Even executive officers need to identify how their role supports your board’s focus beyond their title.

Present a digital graphic centered around your agreed-upon focus surrounded by related work such as advocacy, communications, memberships, partnerships and programming. Then, around the periphery, place the name/image of each board member as distinct movable objects. As the board discusses the role of each director for the coming year, move their name so it’s aligned with aspects of the work on which they will focus, and draw lines to connect them to multiple pieces of the work. The resulting graphic will generate buy-in from your board to achieve results.

Enlist Young Talent
While many boards are run by seasoned veterans, new approaches benefit from fresh eyes, fresh thinking, and fresh energy. Veteran directors have spent much time and energy building a model that worked, and it’s human nature to want to protect it. That having been said, the protection of the status quo is the main deterrent to successfully transforming an organization. No one intends to build a monument to becoming victims of their own success.

While many of us can relearn and refocus, the best way to attune to the next generation is to bring younger professionals onto the board. They won’t just push your thinking they’ll challenge it, and they’ll break things just to prove they’re broken. That’s exactly what’s necessary on order to slough off old assumptions and create new value.

Set Guardrails
Onboarding new talent is one thing, getting them to contribute effectively is another. Be clear about the boards vision, focus and roles, provide orientation so that expectations are clear, and set parameters for where and how new directors contribute. With clear boundaries there is less emphasis on control and more on innovation so that they can show you the way.

The results of this infusion of fresh approaches won’t resemble past models of success. Board veterans may feel uncomfortable with the new look and feel, but it’s important to allow new directors the time and space to provide insight into the needs and interests of younger professionals and to lead the board towards post-pandemic efficacy.

Be Accountable to One Another
Nothing holds back a board more than lack of follow-up and follow-through between meetings. During this crucial time of refresh and restart, associations can’t afford to allow this kind of sputtering to occur. With everything else in place, the ultimate key to success is creating a culture where everyone holds each other accountable, regardless of their title or seat on the board.

A culture of accountability affords the board the chance to look back a year from now and not only measure success, but celebrate it. Each board meeting begins with a review of action items ensuring that milestones are met. Boards that are serious about accountability identify specific colleagues to keep one another accountable. For example, if a director agrees to secure a partnership for the organization, the board identifies a second member of the board to check in with them between meetings to ensure to keep things on track and ensure they are successful. Everyone understands the importance of holding each other accountable.

In Closing
High interest, high impact topics championed by affiliates this summer include

  • redesign delivery of instruction to match how students learn today
  • mental and emotional wellness for staff and students
  • diversity, equity and inclusion for schools
  • principal and teacher leadership cohorts, and
  • job-embedded coaching

My work with affiliates is some of the most rewarding of my career. Over the years we have built relationships that have prepared us for all kinds of challenges and opportunities, learning and growing together. In fact, we have had some of our most incisive and generative discussions during the COVID-19 disruption. As we continue to learn to manage the virus from pandemic to endemic, we are poised for a fresh start and new growth ahead.

Walter McKenzie is Senior Director for Constituent Services at ASCD, leading its affiliate, connected community, professional interest community, student chapter and emerging leader programs.

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