As anyone who’s ever served on an association’s board of directors knows, leading as a volunteer requires leading with influence, rather than leading with authority.
The unique challenges that come with association board leadership is one reason why Sentergroup partnered with Plenty Consulting to co-develop Lantern, an experiential and immersive leadership experience for our client leaders.
Partially modeled on the book The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and Barry Posner, Lantern is part of Sentergroup’s mission to make our corner of the world a little better by helping create high-performing associations and association boards.
Here are the 5 Practices of Exemplary Leadership Kouzes and Posner write about in The Leadership Challenge, and how they apply to association boards.
1. Model the Way.
It might seem like a cliché, but one of the most important ways a director demonstrates leadership is by the example he or she sets. Do they have a passion for the organization’s mission? Do they believe an association can be a vehicle to make the world a better place?
Or is service on the board of directors simply a way to make their LinkedIn profile more impressive?
An engaged director sets an example for fellow directors and creates an engaged board. An engaged board of directors creates a high-performing association. A high-performing association demands engaged directors.
That cycle all begins with an individual director modeling the way.
2. Inspire a Shared Vision.
If your association’s performance metrics aren’t where you would like them to be, you might want to look at a potential root cause: Does your board of directors have a shared vision of the role the association plays in a member’s life? Does the board view the association as an essential, dynamic force within an industry or profession?
If the board doesn’t have a shared vision of an association that is dynamic and essential—and instead views the association as a sort of club—developing new benefits or redesigning your events will likely do very little to change things.
Association relevancy doesn’t begin with the right membership benefits or well-designed events. It begins with a board of directors that has a shared vision of a dynamic, innovative organization.
3. Challenge the Process.
If an association is stagnating and seeing its influence decline, who is responsible for changing that?
Staff play an important role. Hiring an association management company that emphasizes innovation and sees its role as far more than just administrative support is important.
Ultimately though, the person in the best position to truly challenge the status quo within an association is a volunteer leader aided by innovative, creative association staff. Directors, committee members, and other volunteers know whether an association is doing its job in a very direct way. If an association isn’t doing what it’s supposed to be doing—if it isn’t helping members thrive in their industry or profession—then it’s time to challenge the process and change the status quo.
4. Enable Others to Act.
One of the most powerful ways a director can demonstrate leadership is by enabling others to act.
One example of how to do that is by keeping an open mind and creating an environment where people feel comfortable with sharing new ideas. It can be intimidating for a volunteer director to step forward and challenge the process or suggest a new way of doing things during a board meeting. If that director fears that his or her idea will be dismissed (or worse), they’ll never step up—and that’s how associations slowly become less relevant.
5. Encourage the Heart.
For an association to succeed, people have to want to be involved—and people want to be involved with organizations that are welcoming and encouraging. An association has a little bit of a strange dynamic: Most associations are composed of competitors in one form or another. Yet, high-performing associations have leaders who believe everyone benefits when members encourage one another’s success.
The person who best understands the challenges you face is someone walking along side of you, taking the same path you are. You may both be headed in the same direction—competing to achieve the same goal—but you are both more likely to achieve that goal when you encourage one another.
A supportive environment based on a sense of shared purpose is also the most valuable member benefit an association can ever create. It’s the benefit that will drive your retention rate, even when technology and other changes disrupt your association.
A successful association requires inspired leadership. If your board of directors creates a shared vision, challenges the status quo, and empowers and encourages members, your association will be well on its way to becoming the high-performing organization your profession or industry needs.