Replacing the Classic 5-6 Year Cycle of Dysfunction

Be honest. Doesn’t it seem that chamber boards just seem to lose their sense of purpose, priorities, and momentum about every 5-6 years or so?

Actually, Chamber Boards Exhibit Several 5-6 Year Behavioral Cycles

Ever notice that chamber boards periodically just seem to lose their sense of priorities? A period of time when the priority is for members to exchange business leads is followed by a period when chamber members want to improve their business skills, which is then followed by a period when influencing legislation and protesting tax increases is most important. Shifting political and economic climates are the primary underlying causes of this pattern.

Ever notice that chamber boards periodically just seem to lose their sense of unity? A period of time when the officers and committee chairs easily attract volunteers for projects is followed by a period when committee chairs feel stranded in their roles, which is then followed by a period when the number of committees are reduced and officers are the only people speaking at board meetings. The evolving composition and the leadership styles and skills of the executive committee are the primary underlying causes of this pattern.

Ever notice that chamber boards periodically just seem to lose their sense of power and authority? A period of time when board members are comfortable setting policy and strategic direction is followed by a period of time when board members feel compelled to tell the executive what to do, which is followed by a period of time when the board members want to personally run events, author position papers, and make public statements. The experience level of board members and how results are measured are the primary underlying causes of this pattern.

Ever notice that chamber boards periodically just seem to lose their identity? They don’t know if they are supposed to tell, do, ask permission, or just watch.

This list could go on and on because there are a number of cycles that impact the effectiveness of chamber boards, and any/all of these cycles are compounded when a chamber has staff turnover or financial difficulties

Don’t Wait for the 5 Year Strategic Plan to Come Around to Address Behavioral Cycles

Because these behavioral cycles each typically require about 5-6 years to play out, it is tempting for a chamber executive to conclude that comprehensive strategic planning done every five years will address all of this. Unfortunately, the cycles do not all start and stop at the same time.  The cycles don’t always accelerate or slow down on cue, and some cycles complement one another while others compete and clash.  An organization’s life is not linear or static.

Fortunately, strategic planning is only one of many processes that chamber executives can use to address the behavioral cycles and influence board effectiveness. Instead of waiting for five years to re-open strategic planning, it can be helpful for a chamber to utilize a rotation of assessments related to different cycles.  This may be the year to evaluate your board’s sense of unity and shared responsibility. Next year may be the best year to evaluate your board’s sense of priorities.  The following year may be your year to consider what type of board fits your situation.

A few examples:

Behavioral Cycle A:  Motivated Board Members Have Somehow Become Disappointed with Board Meetings

One of the business organizations for which I am a board member has long enjoyed an excellent reputation especially since the current president was hired in the mid-1990s. A few years ago, the organization was going through one of those periods when no matter how hard the staff worked, board members seemed dissatisfied.  No matter what was featured on the board meeting agenda, board members seemed “fidgety.” Their strategic planning committee had been reconvened, but the leadership asked me to conduct a telephone survey of board members and senior staff.  They concluded that this was the year to address board member expectations.

Our survey asked board members about their previous experiences with other boards of directors, their evaluation of the each section of the recent board meetings, and their hopes for the future.  However, the most revealing set of questions in the survey was the questions that asked each board member to share his/her evaluation about which type of board the organization needs and his/her view about whether the board is currently a policy, an advisory, or an action board.  There were clear and informative patterns in the board member responses to these questions. Provosts/Presidents of Institutions of Higher Education wanted the Chamber Board to have full authority over policy.  Members of the Executive Committee viewed the current board as advisory to the President. Board members who viewed themselves as advocates wanted to see dramatic results and craved more action.  How can a board measure its own effectiveness if its members haven’t agreed on whether the board is policy, advisory, or action oriented? The survey helped this chamber clarify the role of the executive committee, establish new strategic initiatives that involve board members in an appropriate manner, and make board meetings more meaningful.

Behavioral Cycle B – Somehow Over Time The Executive Director Now Dominates the Board Meetings and Members Have Become Passive

A chamber of commerce of a vibrant suburban community had fallen into the pattern of relying completely on its Executive Director and two other employees.  A core group of members showed up for weekly networking luncheons and attended maybe two other events across a year’s time.  However, committees no longer existed and board meetings were dominated by the Executive Director’s report.  A long series of statistics about membership retention and advertising revenues were shared and upcoming programs were described. Representatives from the larger member companies would only attend the September board meetings which felt like sponsor briefings.  If you watched closely, you could see that they were just mentally adding up the total price tag for the coming year’s sponsorship so they would know what to say to their CEOs upon their return to the office.

If you were the Executive Director of this organization, where would you start?  If he started with strategic planning, he would run the risk that no one would show up or they would just ask him to write the plan for them.  If he tried to assess priorities or the organization’s sense of purpose, he would be told that members just want leads for increased sales.  In this case, it was important for the Executive Director to encourage the board to have its own retreat focused on what they wanted from their board experience. Why did they agree to serve on the board?  What did they hope to accomplish?  How did they feel at their own board meetings?  Where did they think things were headed? How did they want to change their own experience? The numerous changes that would be needed for this chamber would undoubtedly come in a series of steps.  The first step would be expanding the hopes and vision of the members of the executive committee.  Only then could they help the Executive Director change what he is doing.

Summary

How can you realistically help your board remain centered when chambers face evolving composition and leadership styles of executive committees, a multitude of assignments, business demands that compete for the attention of volunteer members, shifting political and economic climates, and the range of experience levels among board members?  Some hints lie in the behavioral cycles. It is often helpful to rotate through a series of annual assessments of specific behaviors instead of relying solely on a comprehensive strategic planning process every five years. If you don’t know where to start, consider evaluating board member perceptions, preferences, and expectations.

 

Known as The Growth Strategist®, Aldonna R. Ambler, CMC, CSP helps professional service firms, technology/telecommunication companies, and construction-related/distribution companies reach their goal of Achieving Accelerated Growth With Sustained ProfitabilityÒ through a combination of speaking, consulting, executive coaching, authorship, and growth financing.  She has executed an ESOP, grown multiple international businesses, won just about every major award an entrepreneur can win, provided expert testimony on economic growth at over 30 legislative hearings, conferred with four different Presidents in the Oval Office, and published 2 books and over 100 articles.  Aldonna Ambler can be reached at 1-888-Aldonna (253-6662) or at www.aldonna.com.

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