By Robert Nelson, CAE
When organizations create or re-design their governance structure, two board structural models come to mind: competency based and representational. In a competency based model, Board candidates are identified based on the competencies they bring to the Board. In a representational model, Board composition is defined by sectors or sub-groups (such as chapters or regions) that candidates represent.
The mere fact that a Board is formed using a competency based model doesn't mean it is a highly effective governing body any more than a representational Board is ineffective for the mere reason it is representational based. Although Board member selection methodology has a significant impact on Board performance, there are many other elements that contribute to high performance governance, such as: Board training, agenda design, Board briefing materials and overall governance structure.
In fact, one doesn't have to choose between competency based and representational governance. One can have both by inserting competency based practices into a "representational" system. Regardless, a competency based Board might make the most sense for your organization for a variety of reasons. If you are considering moving to a competency based model, remember, you only get one chance; if it fails, it will be a long time before your organization considers competency-based models again. As such, a well thought out process/strategy is critical.
Once you've made the decision to move to a competency based Board, here are some things to consider and steps that will increase the probability of a successful transition.
Steps and Considerations
- Create a vision: Formulate a vision in your mind (and eventually on paper) of what an ideal competency-based system might look for your organization. Although you need to be willing to adapt your vision as the process moves forward, it is important to start with a vision in mind.
- Barriers: Identify the barriers that you will encounter. Some of these may be structural, some of these may be tied to personalities. In doing so, recognize that fear and a perception of losing one's voice may drive opposition. Consider how you can eliminate or mitigate the impact of the barriers.
- Latitude of attitude: Determine what part of your vision to share. Recognize that your leaders/members have "judgmental anchors." The further your vision is from their judgmental anchors, the higher the probability for contrasts to be drawn and resistance to surface. When concepts are introduced that are closer to one's judgmental anchor there is a higher probability of assimilation and acceptance. Over time, through incremental change, our judgmental anchor shifts. So, decide if you want to share your "end vision" or a vision that falls somewhere along the vision continuum and is closer to your leaders' judgmental anchors.
- Understand the landscape: Four often cited responses to change include the victim, the neutral bystander, the critic and the advocate. You probably have all four in your organization. Involve them all in your change efforts and develop messaging specific to each group. The victim sees the change as an attack on their persona, role or area of responsibility. The neutral bystander is neither for or against the effort and won't vocally oppose or get behind the change. The critic opposes all change, however at times is not overt in their opposition and works in a stealth manner behind the scenes. The advocate evangelizes the change.
- Articulate the vision: Develop simple, straight forward, easy to understand messaging that paints a picture of your vision, including how it will positively impact the association and members' lives. Focus on how the vision will better the lives of members and add value to the organization. Observe and listen to those impacted and craft a message that resonates with them. Note that your messaging will most likely need to evolve as you move through the change process and be tailored to specific audiences. Of course, you must first fully understand why you want to transition to a competency-based Board.
- Identify champions: Identify champions for the effort early on in the process. These will be some of the "advocates" mentioned above. The champions can help you refine your vision and develop a strategy/process for moving the effort forward. The champions will also be key when it comes to executing the new model.
- Design the process: The process to accomplish the change you are looking for should be rigorous and inclusive. Think strategically as you design the process.
- Involve members: Early in the process, it is important to involve the critics and advocates mentioned above. Of course, you will also have to think strategically about who else to involve, how to involve them, and when to involve them, keeping in mind that your goal is to create an inclusive process. You may want to start with creating a governance task force.
- Communications strategy: A sound communications strategy is paramount. Your communications strategy should include mechanisms to receive input as well as to communicate outwardly. It should also take into consideration your various audiences. Key communication triggers include: the initial communication of your vision, announcement of the change effort, inviting participation in the effort, formation of the governance task force, announcement of recommendations/adoption of recommendations, and execution of the change plan/transition.
Your organization may be primed and open to transitioning to a competency-based model. If so, you may be able to start directly down that path. However, if your organization is not primed for such a change, it might make more sense to focus more generally on enhancing Board performance and charge the governance task force with undertaking a governance system audit with the goal of identifying options/alternatives that would enhance Board performance; it is likely that issues related to Board selection methodology and Board competencies will naturally surface. You may even need to back up and begin with an ongoing Board training program, so the Board understands and internalizes what good governance is before you create your governance task force.
Robert Nelson, a Certified Association Executive (CAE) and principal of Nelson Strategic Consulting, brings over a quarter-century of successful executive leadership experience, working with Boards and high-powered CEOs in a not-for-profit setting.