Board Transitions: From Operational to Strategic Leadership

Transitioning your board out of operational thinking and into strategic oversight is on the wish list for many associations, but few understand their own responsibility in the process. Making this change requires careful consideration, as there can be grey areas about who is responsible for what.

Effective board leadership is essential to every nonprofit association. As leaders in their respective fields, board members are there to shape and aid the nonprofit’s strategic direction. Each member brings talent, expertise, and experience that organizations cannot afford to hire; yet often, this treasured wisdom is used in an advisory capacity only. The powerful leadership abilities found on your board shouldn’t be mired in daily logistics.

It is the responsibility of the organization to set board expectations and responsibilities.

The board of directors should govern the organization while the executive director (ED) oversees the staff and day-to-day operations. Sounds easy, right? But far too often, the board gets caught up in the details… they should be steering, not pedaling the bike.

While executive directors are hired and assessed by boards of directors, those two roles should exist in a co-management capacity. The board has a direct role in shaping strategy and supporting strategic objectives identified by the ED, and the ED has a direct role in communicating those strategic needs.

Transition Phases

To move your board to strategic guidance from operational approval, first assess where you are in the life cycle of board development. In newer, younger organizations, you are likely going to need an operational board. This is the “all hands-on deck” phase when you need facilitated operational support to execute a mission.

As your organization develops, your board should transition to a governance role, where members begin to look at the long-term vision. This can be a difficult transition for long-term members and volunteers. A risk for a seasoned organization is the temptation to slide back into old habits and suddenly, the board is back to operating.  This tendency is typically caused by the executive director not having enough time to educate and guide board members.

Remember, board members are recruited to serve because they excel within their fields – and that is often achieved through operational excellence. Directing comes naturally to effective board leaders, even those who possess gifts for both strategic foresight and evaluation. We need to value board members’ expertise and empower them to move our organizations into the future – to be present in the now with a path to tomorrow.

Lead from Within

As staff members, we may complicate the matter by presenting report-outs on operational duties with no qualitative request.  It is okay to have “Information Only” material in a board packet, but it should not be on the agenda.  Directors respond to the information the association staff gives them – so if you consistently give them operational reports alone, they will respond to your operations. Instead, the ED should be the one to help staff and identify the resources needed for operational success.

Rely on your board for strategic planning, risk management, fundraising and “friend raising” – ask them for that. Yes, you will still keep the board abreast of your progress. Progress reports are great for a consent agenda item or an executive director’s report, but they should never be the focus while you have your most valuable resource: your board members’ time.

Identify your strategic needs. Outline them with your board chair ahead of time. Work with your chair to engage individual board members to share opinions, facts and resources. Take the time to coach your board toward strategic leadership and demonstrate how to effectively partner with the staff. Once you have made this transition, the association will be better equipped for the future.

Could your organization benefit leadership consulting to get your board on the path to strategic leadership? Our association management experts can help.

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