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How to recruit board members with an eye to strategy, skills needed by the association

EOs can facilitate process without overinvolvement in picking individual members

Lori Anderson, Chuck Macfarlane Anderson, left, and Macfarlane

March 1, 2019
By Martin Berman-Gorvine

Association CEOs often walk a narrow line in helping recruit board members while not exercising their influence in a way that suggests they’re trying to stack the deck with allies. The key is collaboratively setting recruitment guidelines that bring together people with needed skills in accordance with the association’s overall strategy, say CEOs and consultants.

“The board nomination process is tied to our strategic plan,” said Lori Anderson, CEO of the International Sign Association. “Subject matter experts are needed, but also personality traits.”

ISA has developed a method of recruiting such board members through trial and error, she said.

“We are doing a great job of it now. We have an amazing board, but it wasn’t always that way, with everyone rowing the same direction,” Anderson said. The current governance structure was the result of an overhaul in 2013, she said.

Periodic review of needed skills is part of the process. At a “leadership congress” every January, ISA holds conversations to shape the strategic plan. This helps set such goals as developing international partnerships, something ISA is looking to do over the next three years. The group seeks board members “with knowledge or passion” about these goals, and a track record of innovation.

Similarly, at the American Association of Diabetes Educators, the board does an annual review that helps it discover needs such as board members with a financial background, CEO Charles Macfarlane said. Exit interviews with departing board members also help to identify gaps the nominating committee can then look to fill, he said.

The CEO’s role

The CEO shouldn’t generally have to comment on individual candidates for board membership or their respective skill sets, Macfarlane said. His or her role is instead “ensuring there is a good process in place,” he said. That means ensuring there is a pool of strong candidates, that the nominating committee has a way to understand the board’s needs, and that the committee also has the right processes and procedures in place to vet candidates, he added.

Most board candidates at AADE “come from our chapter leadership, communities of interest and our committees,” Macfarlane said. “We orient them and give them leadership training and put the bug in their ear early on that this is a path to the board. Then we make sure they’re prepared if they do seek a board position.”

The nominating committee plays its role to recruit candidates with needed skills, while association staff provides administrative support, he added. That leaves the CEO with a limited role in filling seats on the board. When Macfarlane meets with the chair of the nominating committee every year, he tells this person, who is the immediate past president of the association, “I do not influence the process” of picking board members, “unless you need me.” That is, he added, “if they run into a problem or have a question about an individual, then I communicate with you”—the nominating committee chair only.

Committee collaboration with the CEO works well, agreed Glenn Tecker, chairman and co-CEO of Tecker International, a consultant who works with association boards on issues of governance and strategy.

“The best guarantee of composing a board with the skill sets required is to put in place a nominating committee that is provided guidance by the board and the CEO about what perspectives the board desires to have access to in its deliberations,” he said.

He added that these committees will usually try to ensure that new board members demonstrate the skills for effective board membership in general; that they have the right “generationally related experience, gender-related experience, culture and ethnically related experience, geographically related experience, role in the industry or profession-related experience” and, if applicable, they have the kind of experience needed for projects the board expects the association to undertake soon, such as a digital transformation. 

Eyes on prize

In practice though, organizational cultures vary quite a bit, with the CEO’s role in selecting board members running the gamut from no involvement all the way to the CEO actually picking board members, although the latter is “very rare” in the association world, Tecker said.

The worst situation is where there is “more than one culture” for selecting board members among the various players, and nobody is talking about it, Tecker said. This can be fixed by airing the differences and having the organization set a policy, he said.

Keep the focus on your association’s goals and what the board needs to help reach them, suggested Jenifer Holland, associate vice president for the consulting and learning practice at Washington, D.C.-based BoardSource.

“Often, a helpful, sophisticated understanding of the skills we need on the board starts from taking stock and seeing if any skill sets are missing,” she said. “Often, that’s done in conjunction with the strategic plan or framework.”

Beyond the matter of basic eligibility requirements for board membership, which are usually spelled out in the bylaws, CEOs and boards should work together to ensure that the candidates selected “align with needed skills and perspectives, strategic orientation and mission, and core principles,” Holland said. “When CEOs and committees have had those discussions, and put those profiles together, it helps focus and prioritize on what candidates would be the best match.”