Rocking the Boat: A Shift to a Competency-Based Board During  a Pandemic

Rocking the Boat: A Shift to a Competency-Based Board During a Pandemic

By Erin Volland

According to recent industry data, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated trends that were already in the works (Association Laboratory). Will advancing towards a competency-based board be part of this trend? The pandemic has certainly forced many associations to review their volunteer leadership structure, particularly around their decision-making process and the distribution of authority to make key, timely decisions. 

Volunteer leadership structures emphasizing geography, populism, and length of service as key criteria for election or appointment are evolving into new models of leadership selection. Populating volunteer leadership teams with the appropriate experience, skillset, and background is more important now than ever. 

When deciding to advance changes to or alter a nomination process for directors and officers, board members are asked to consider a change that could mean closing the door on their own leadership advancement.

Also, the desire for board members to educate members and stakeholders, expend political capital, and change a long-standing culture may be just as relevant in a pandemic era than pre-pandemic. Sometimes the stars align, and a board recognizes the need to change, removes their own future leadership aspirations from the decision, and has the desire to see it all through—even if they themselves were selected from a competitive election process.

Changing the Leadership Selection Process

This is exactly what happened for an association partner that AMC worked with this year. In board self-evaluations this association’s board consistently rated the board nominating process and composition with the lowest of ratings. So, the first step was met: the board recognized that there was a need to change the leadership selection process. Even before the pandemic, the bylaws committee met to begin envisioning what a change in board composition could look like and what level of change was feasible and desirable.

The board selection process for this association, like many, is rooted in representation, specifically geographical representation. Geographic districts choose the directors in a process that reflects the culture and priorities of the district but not necessarily the association as a whole.

So, the board set out to get a better sense of the organization’s appetite for change by tasking a volunteer committee to work with AMC Consulting on a solution. AMC Consulting conducted qualitative and quantitative research with past and current leaders.  The results showed a clear divide as to who saw the value in the current representational structure (those who had been in practice longer) and those who did not see as much value in geographic representation (those who were newer to practice).

Diving Deep During the Pandemic

After reviewing the research and comprehensive discussions, the committee was preparing a presentation for the board at their annual meeting in March 2020. We all know the next steps to this story: the meeting was cancelled, and the presentation and recommendations delayed. This ended up giving the committee time to really dive into the issues and the potential cultural impact of them, which would not have happened in a pre-pandemic environment. The challenges brought on by the pandemic also reminded leaders of why the work was being done and how important it is to have the right people on the board to set the future direction of the profession.

Committee members thoroughly reviewed each element of change to the board selection process that AMC Consulting, in partnership with the staff, developed. Mark Engle’s research on the board selection process was crucial in helping the committee to understand leading practices and how they compared with the current practice. They obtained a clear picture of what a future board might look like and a roadmap to get there. They discussed who had the authority to make the final changes and the additional work that would need to be done in educating those decision-makers.

One of the most interesting elements along the way is that between committee conference calls, the committee became more willing to take on change. This was a case where the extra time was on the side of the committee rather than working against them. Also, it’s amazing how motivating a lengthy bylaws amendment process can be. Leaders are often more willing to support substantial change if it means only going through the bylaw amendment process once. Many leaders don’t want to defend or push change incrementally if it means bylaws or structural changes every year for several years.

The most important step was the board approving the committee’s recommendation to move to a national board selection process based on competencies and background. The committee, board, and staff all recognized the lift this would be for the following year and still chose to put the future of the association above these challenges.

Charting a Future Course

There is still work to be done in not only seeking the approval of the association’s House of Delegates, but also in rewriting governing documents and policies, as well as defining the competencies that will help the association meet its strategic goals. All this being said, congratulations to the leadership and staff on their hard work, removing themselves and their future leadership goals from the decisions,  taking the challenging road of convincing their peers this is the right thing to do, and on ultimately putting the profession first and foremost in their decision-making process.

Only time will tell if more association boards are now willing to recognize their own challenges regarding nomination, election, or leadership representation processes and strive to change those that are deeply embedded in their culture. Will associations still leave future leadership teams up to chance?

Erin Volland, MPA CAE is a senior consultant on the AMC Consulting Team

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