Sometimes board members are picked for their skills, expertise, and credentials. They come into the position assuming they will rely heavily on their knowledge and experience and also believe the mental resources they bring will be valued.
But the organization they are serving on the board for, often, is not at all like the organizations they have worked for. They may work for a much large organization or smaller. Their team may make decisions and act on their decisions a lot faster, or not. They may be used to supporting a single product, not working with a diverse service-based organization like an association.
A volunteer may be used to a very hands-on leadership style. They may not work in a collaborative environment. They may feel more comfortable with tactics than strategy. They may be technically oriented not service oriented.
When the volunteer steps onto the board they assume they are prepared for the position. And the CEO and staff may also assume the volunteer leader is prepared. So there is an inevitable moment when both parties become disillusioned.
For example, in a meeting, the board member hears a familiar problem. They happily contribute the answer, “well when we had a very similar problem at my employer, we…”. To only receive what can feel like a verbal smack-down from staff, “but this is not the same kind of organization,” or “for tax purposes, we can’t do that,” or “oh no! Our members will never go for that”.
It is then the board member realizes how much they don’t know about this kind of organization. They realize they will not readily have all the answers. In fact, if they want to do this job well, there will be a learning curve. The world tips a bit on its axis when the board member realizes that this position is not one they will excel in the same way they excel at their current paid position. This feeling is disorienting and worrisome.
Association CEOs may also feel that same sense of disorientation. “Whoa!” they may think to themselves after a board member says an obviously silly thing, “I thought Barbara was going to be an amazing board member but, what was that?” To avoid the sense of disorientation on both sides there are a few things CEOs, board presidents, and board members can do:
- Conduct a new board member orientation – reflect on all the silly and odd things board members have (probably unknowingly) said in the past and show new board members upfront how this organization is a different kind of organization.
- Make sure board members understand their role – do you need them to be much more strategic? Do you need more hands on deck? Make sure everyone understands the expectations including the expectation that the board members police each other, so they each fulfill the right role.
- Get everyone focused on asking helpful questions – associations are complex and finding the right solution is hard. Let board members know it is okay to not have all the answers, but that we just need everyone thinking about the issues at hand and asking thoughtful questions that will help us think about every important aspect of the issue.
- Allow room for compassion for each other’s silly proclamations – it is easy to get fired up about a comment that is so blatantly outside the scope of possibility. Likely this board member is just trying to help, and they are helping by pulling from their experience which doesn’t sync up with the needs of the association. Find ways to honor their contribution while steering them back on track.
Realize at some point early in their term new board members may have some significant feelings of disorientation. Help them by setting the stage and preparing them for the job ahead.