How to Build a Competency-Based Board

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The authors of an updated edition of Race for Relevance argue not just for smaller boards, but boards that also are more alert to the challenges an association will face in the near future.

Radically controversial opinions are rare in the association world, so the ones that emerge tend to be memorable. Ten years ago, consultants Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers, CAE, kicked off a heated discussion among association leaders when they published their book, Race for Relevance, which argued that the optimal size of a board is five members.

Five-member boards are still hard to come by, but in years since the book’s publication more associations are recognizing the need to be efficient and nimble—adjectives that don’t mesh well with a 20-person board or 100-member house of delegates. “Associations board are composed for consensus, not speed or competitive advantage,” says Byers. “And the latter two things have increased in importance over the past decade.”

So for the new revised edition of Race for Relevance, Coerver and Byers are sticking with their advice. But they note that a smarter, speedier board also requires board members who are smarter about governance in general and the needs of their association in particular. As they write in the book, selection of board members “should be guided by an understanding of what competencies will be needed to govern the association and direct it effectively into the future.”

If that seems obvious, Coerver points out that there are plenty of associations that still neglect basic vetting of their volunteer leaders. “Only a third of boards interview their board members before they come on,” he says. “Two thirds of board members don’t even get an interview to find out, What are you interested in? Why do you want to be on this board?”

Race for Relevance includes case studies of organizations that have conducted environmental scans regarding their needs for the next five years, and then vetted and recruited potential board members who can help with those needs. That could mean marketing talent, or tech savvy, or representation from previously underserved member groups. Regardless, it’s better, they argue, if that expertise resides within the board, rather than be passed on to an ad hoc committee or task force. For critical issues, having a peer speak on the topic carries more weight than if it comes from staff or a volunteer group.

Doing this involves some tricky balancing work, at least at first, they say. Associations should do more to scout for future board talent, but avoid creating a formal leadership pipeline that generates an it’s-my-turn-mentality that turns board service into a coronation, not a duty. “You don’t want that circle to be so small that there’s an idea that anybody’s being knighted,” Byers says.

Similarly, looking for particular skill sets among board members doesn’t mean they should be supplanting the role of staff members. As they write in the book, “directors’ knowledge or understanding in their area should be at a high, conceptual level—not a tactical or implementation level.”

When it comes to technology, for instance, “I don’t need somebody who knows how to write code [on the board],” Coerver says. “I need somebody who understands the potential of digital delivery, who understands the potential of technology, and can advocate for resource allocations that are necessary and investments that are necessary.”

The pandemic has borne out the need to do this work, however challenging, they say. The associations that did well in the last 18 months acted efficiently and decisively, often in small groups, and learned to double down on the competencies that were essential for progress. As the pandemic dissipates, there’s still time to take advantage of that urgency.

“I believe the pandemic has been an accelerator for the trends that we have identified in the book,” Byers says. “If there ever was a time to become more innovative, or to double down on digital transformation, or to change your governance, or to become a competency-based board, it’s now. Association professionals have a tailwind that they probably haven’t had for a decade.”

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