Board consensus is not about reaching lowest common denominator, grudging agreements, but about making decisions together that board members accept and can actively support, particularly when communicating them to stakeholders and association members.
While all boards have their unique quirks and strengths, association boards can face particular challenges in reaching genuine consensus for action on major strategic issues. Here are three key challenges I’ve identified as experienced by many associations, and some practical, easy-to-implement ideas for overcoming them. Many of these challenges (and the solutions) are equally relevant to non-profit, government and corporate boards.
Challenges to consensus
1. Working Relationships
The mix of appointed or elected directors can result in a variety of personalities, experience and motivations. Limited meeting time restricts opportunities to build relationships based on shared goals and trust.
2. Which Language? Which Process?
Different backgrounds and experiences amongst directors often means there is no agreed shorthand around strategy. So misunderstandings can arise simply because of different definitions.
Some directors may be more comfortable focusing on the big picture while others want to jump to a discussion on tactics. If a clear, consistent process is not applied, the result can be confusion, backtracking and frustration.
3. Risk appetite
As representatives of a wider membership, often association boards can be hamstrung by uncertainty about what their members want, or less willing to consider alternative courses of action.
Getting to “Yay”
Some simple techniques and a bit of thinking ahead can make a huge difference in designing a planning process which will facilitate genuine consensus in the boardroom.
1. Invest in planning
Allocate sufficient time for preparation as well as for the actual strategy sessions. Consider all the inputs that may be useful in the process and the best ways of obtaining these, including data such as member feedback.
2. Design an effective agenda
The agenda should be based on a process that steps through key issues in a logical way. For every section of the agenda, identify a key question that needs to be answered. That way people will be clearer about the reason for the discussion and more focused on reaching consensus. Keep the structure clear and uncomplicated. If you have an overly complicated structure you will waste valuable time debating definitions and process rather than what needs to get done. Between each section of the session recap where you have got to and clearly explain the next steps.
Ensure at least one part of the session is done differently to previous sessions. This will open up opportunities for creative thinking and may help challenge personal assumptions that impact on reaching consensus. For example, if you normally stick to a formal agenda, start the day with an informal brainstorming exercise; invite an external guest speaker for a 30 minute session to challenge thinking on a key issue; include small group discussions; or use visual cues/reporting rather than just text.
**3. Set the scene and identify common ground in advance **
Consider a pre-session survey or one-on-one interviews with directors to identify key issues which need to be addressed, as well as identifying areas of common agreement which won’t require extensive discussion during the session. Ensure all participants are provided with important background information at least one week prior to the session, including accepted starting points and key questions to be answered.
This article was originally published in the Better Boards Conference Magazine 2017.