Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Authenticity in Association Governance - Building Empire

Too bad, people say what's wrong with the kids today
Tell you right now they've got nothing to lose
They're building empire!

Game point, nobody wins. Decline, right on time.
What happened to the dream sublime?
Tear it all down, we'll put it up again.
Another empire?...................Queensryche, Empire

The Short of It
  • Association governance is challenging
  • True leadership is steeped in authenticity
  • Honestly embracing the members and the mission
  • Representing those interests above all others
  • But when your governance structure loses that authenticity
  • Then you are in for a long run of playing politics and "building empire"
  • Achieving your core purpose and envisioned future will be more difficult
  • And maybe even impossible
The Long of It

Association governance takes a bad rap most of the time. As an executive, it will be one of the trickier and most frustrating things you have to learn to deal with. Engaging in discussions around "governance" typically devolve into a quadrata of entrenched perspectives.
  • Governance is nothing but a decision making model so if we play with the flowchart that will fix things.
  • Governance is nothing but politics and the day belongs to the winners.
  • Governance is entrenched and steeped in tradition therefore I am powerless against it.
  • Governance is unnecessary and if we could just get rid of it our problems would be solved.

We've all heard these statements thrown about at one time or another. It seems to me those perspectives are too simplistic. They smack of "management" rather than "leadership" or seem to reflect a latent desire on the part of executive or board members to see themselves as Machiavellian power brokers or victims.

I am not going to pretend I am the end-all-be-all authority on governance issues. I do have a significant amount of hands on experience with different governance structures, many of which worked better than others. It isn't intellectually honest to assert simpler governance structures are automatically less troublesome or lead to faster decision making. In some cases, simpler structures can actually be steeped in more political struggles than larger ones perhaps because the perceived stakes are higher. In my humble opinion, the simplicity or complexity of the structure itself is less important than how it is run. Even complicated governance structures can run smoothly and efficiently if the volunteer leaders therein decide to embrace an authentic structure.

What do I mean by that?

Authenticity is defined as undisputed credibility, truthfulness in origin and intention, reliable and real. Authenticity in governance comes down to this - allowing and encouraging dissension, not hiding motives, recruiting volunteer leaders with diverse backgrounds, ideas and opinions, gathering facts, presenting both the positive and negative, acting credibly and consistently and, most importantly, eschewing petty politics for sincere concentration on pursuit of the mission above all.

Authentic governance structures honor the pieces that fit and eliminate the pieces that don't. They behave openly and with integrity without allowing personal politics to undermine and interfere with the greater good. Authentic structures focus on encouraging and implementing the types of innovative ideas that will benefit the membership as a whole and don't expend a great deal of energy playing politics and labeling the "winners" and "losers."

(Hey, I heard that! For those of you cynics out there who say, "Well our governance structure fits the definition of authentic because we are authentically nasty and uncooperative," then my response to you is you have bigger problems than this poor little blog can address.)

Moving on.

Here are three signs your association has a governance structure that is struggling with some authenticity issues and is focused on "politics" and "building empire" as opposed to "governance."

1. The Executive - If your executive director is vetting all prospective board members warning bells should be going off. Is the executive's perspective important when identifying future leaders of the association? Of course. Should the executive have a limited role in nomination committee activities? Sure, if certain guidelines are met. However, you know you have crossed the line when your executive brags about "hand-picking" those that ascend, or when simply being nominated to the board is, in effect, a fait accompli. At that point authentic governance is out the window. You are now operating in a structure dominated by the executive and the executive's main interest becomes self-protection not the accomplishment of the mission. At that point, the executive is building empire.

2. The Board/House of Delegates - If you require a professional parliamentarian at your Board or House of Delegates meetings to help control disputes you are in trouble. (I used to have the National Association of Parliamentarians on speed dial.) Should your board members and delegates be trained in Robert's or Sturgis' rules of order? Of course they should and in fact, your bylaws should reflect their use. Authentic and honorable use of parliamentary rules help ensure orderly progress through an agenda and do nothing to discourage honest discussion and debate. However, when squaring off with a couple of Lyndon-Johnson-wannabes requiring a professional parliamentarian to ensure they a) are appropriately corralled or b) don't wrest control with obscure motions nobody else understands then you have a much bigger issue. Authentic dissension is one thing. Deliberate obstructionism or attempted takeover is clearly another. At that point, your board/house of delegates is not governing, they are playing politics and building empire.

3. The Chapters/Regions - If you are continually wrestling with chapters and/or regions engaging in power struggles and disputes your governance structure needs a shot in the arm. A governance structure not based in authenticity is rife with chapter politics. Is that to say, chapters should not represent their local constituencies? Of course not. Chapters have regional flavors, diverse needs and I don't believe any chapter should blindly walk in lock step with the umbrella organization during a debate. They must represent their constituents sincerely and at times vigorously. However, as the character Spock said, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or of the one." In an authentic structure, regional input is legitimately solicited and honored. If the votes go down contrary to the chapters' opinion a reasonable and cogent argument should be made as to why. At that point, the chapters have a responsibility to set their individual concerns aside for the good of the order. Chapter leaders should not disingenuously attempt to revolt and continue the struggle in other venues. At that point, the chapters are building empire.

Your association should focus on achieving the mission and vision, using all assets to achieve the greater good and ensuring an open and authentic operating environment. Ideas to help in that include:
  • Training your board, chapters and volunteer leaders
  • Holding an annual board orientation with a professional third party
  • Developing a task force to work through governance issues with an independent specialist
  • Developing a strong and compelling core purpose and envisioned future for your members
  • Developing and implementing strong affiliate agreements and enforcing them
  • Developing nominating committee policy to assist in appropriately distributing "influence"
  • Developing and publishing policy overall and following it
  • Ensuring decisions are clearly documented and communicated to all interested parties

Good luck with your governance challenges.  My hope is that your volunteer leaders are appropriately inspired and trained to focus on doing the good work on behalf of the members who put them there, not playing political games and building empire.

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