Written by Mike Morrissey is CEO of ECCO, the European CanCer Organisation
Associations rely on strong leadership to drive change and achieve their missions. The rapid pace of change confronting non-profits has heightened the need for great leaders and increases scrutiny on boards and leadership teams to be working in a finely tuned relationship based on the premise of trust and respect.
Optimal boards lead in three distinct ways. They provide foresight by looking beyond the immediate horizon, identifying early warning signs or industry trends which could have implications on the programmatic focus, financing or structure of your association- understanding when and how it is necessary to “save the ship by rocking the boat.”
They provide oversight, helping to steer associations through challenging times and asking the necessary questions about the core of your mission effectiveness (“Are we doing what we should be doing? Producing the results we should be producing? For the members we should be serving?”).
And they provide insight, leveraging their expertise to act as some of the most important and valuable advocates for your association’s mission and visions.
So what are the key ingredients that will ensure a high-functioning and successful Board?
Since I have worked in the leadership of not-for-profit organizations in different sectors (sport, technology, aviation, retail real estate and investment, medical), I have seen a wide variety of board members in different governance structures. There are two things they have all had in common. They are experts in their field. And they are giving their precious time and expertise to the organization in a voluntary capacity.
I believe respect for their expertise and time is key for the staff teams in such organizations. Putting this principle at the forefront of your relationship between the executive staff and your Board will cultivate a strong and productive relationship that contributes positively to the organization’s overall impact.
Gaining the trust and confidence of board members is key and it doesn’t have to take too long. I would recommend a number of key practices, including the following. You can start by working on the actions agreed at board meetings effectively and quickly. Delivering strategy for the Board and demonstrating progress within a short time frame gives confidence to board members who want to see tangible results within their mandate.
Communication is key, but the way we communicate with board members needs to be varied and respectful of the working schedule of the individual board member and respectful of their way of working. Most importantly, in all cases, communication should be open, proactive and transparent.
The CEO should invest time in proactively seeking board members’ informal input, feedback and guidance on strategy outside of board meetings. You can use these interactions not only to share information and gather input but also to develop strong professional chemistry with each individual member of the board. Furthermore, using opportunities for informal meetings and discussions ensures that when you as the CEO are presenting strategies for approval at board meetings, you will be better able to predict and acknowledge likely areas of disagreement with individual board members.
Following on from the previous point, board meetings should be the “cherry on the cake” in a discussion that has taken place informally between meetings. Adopting a strict “no surprises” policy with the board means being fully transparent on the implications and risks of strategic decisions. This transparency is key to maintaining trust and confidence in you and your leadership team.
Finally, I like the concept of viewing your relationship with the board of your association as a partnership. A sense of partnership can be nurtured by balancing strong points of view with open-mindedness and flexibility: the CEO communicates clear, compelling points of view but also demonstrates willingness to fully consider and apply the board’s views. All parties should continuously strive to establish relationships characterised by the highest standards of honesty, trustworthiness, respect and transparency.
In my current role as CEO of the European CanCer Organisation (ECCO), I can’t pretend that my role is nearly as important as the board members who are saving and improving lives, day in and day out. But I do have my role to play to ensure their time and decisions are effectively implemented and that confidence, trust and respect is best delivered in a successful partnership which is focused on the mission of the organization. Developing practical, workable ways to achieve the often audacious and inspiring missions of associations is vital in successful association leadership and the stakes of getting this right are high – for the members associations serve, and for society overall.