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Do you have virtual meetings? By that I don’t mean ones where virtually no-one shows up, but ones where decisions are made by email only. It appears there is a legal distinction between those and electronic meetings. They’re the ones that take place by conference call or video link! It’s a subtle distinction but one that will become ever more important in this digital age.

Virtual Association Meetings

Setting a date when most of your directors can be in the same place at the one time has always been a pain in the backside for association CEOs. And even when you’ve agreed a date there’s the venue, the travel, and the catering to be thought of. Plus, once you’ve got them together, if you’re foolish enough to give them a glass of wine with their lunch, you can pretty much kiss goodbye to a whole days’ productive time, once a couple of loquacious old bores get into their stride.

So, banishing Directors to the confines of a small screen on the side of your desk sounds pretty attractive. Not least because it has the potential to unlock oodles of time but it can also save a whole pile of money to boot! In the right circumstances virtual meetings can work admirably, but beware, there may be pitfalls.

Thanks to email it’s easy to get agreement to do something between meetings by simply asking committee members to reply signifying their consent. That’s fine, until one or two people don’t agree, raise major objections, or make counter-proposals. Face to face this would get argued through and the majority view would probably prevail. But, if your discussion is solely by email, how – and who – determines whether a decision has been reached and what happens next? Clear ground rules should help.

A policy that requires over 50% of those responding to agree, or a minimum number of objections before something can be stopped, would do the trick. But what next? Wait until a subsequent meeting – virtual or real – to ratify that decision? Not much help if a rapid response is required! And what about keeping records? Electronic? Not much good if they’re only accessible from one person’s inbox! Better to make it a policy that such decisions are reported like Minutes?

For a couple of years I was on the Board of an international body whose Directors were scattered to the four corners of the globe (not logically possible, but you know what I mean!). Getting them together for more than one or two meetings a year would have been prohibitively expensive and massively time-consuming, so most Board meetings were held by teleconference. With the CEO in Australia, the Chairman in America, and Directors in England, South Africa, India etc., we had to meet at odd moments to allow for time differences. Maybe the odd Director answered the phone in their pyjamas (funny place to have a phone), but it worked!

The key was planning, preparation, and participation.  The Officers having already made their own deliberations, the Chairman and CEO set out and distributed an advance agenda that progressed in logical sequence; notes and supporting papers were circulated in advance, with all options explained; and all participants expected to state their view clearly, with votes enumerated against the attendee list.

It worked because the group was tight, well-known to each other, committed to attendance, and anxious to make progress. It would have failed if the Chairman had permitted subsequent backtracking on previous decisions, let dominant personalities take over the discussion, or allowed the meeting to stray into subjects that were off beam. The particular skill being to inspire input from those who never normally express an opinion on anything, or wrong-foot those who switched to speakerphone while they nipped off to fetch a coffee. Face to face these same skills would be used to prompt those individuals whose ‘lights are on’ but where there’s ‘nobody home’!

Of course ‘actual’ meetings are better when it’s a large diverse gathering – like an AGM – or when there is a lot of business to cover on numerous issues. Slide decks and Power Point presentations can work in a virtual environment, but when you need 100% impact a live event is always best! But the major downside to virtual meetings is that they severely limit the chances of an after-meeting drink! Not the ‘done thing’ these days I know but, speaking personally, I’ve learned an enormous amount about running trade associations with a glass in my hand!

Reviewing your strategy and communications? Can I help? Over twenty years’ association management experience.

Bavaria 1

Michael Hoare FIAM

IofAM 022 Virtual Meetings Protocol October 2015

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What does an association CEO actually do? Good question! A combination of politician, ambassador, tactician, and showman you might say. And a small business leader to boot! OK, but what qualities does a good CEO need to succeed? That’s a question that involves a long answer and one which will be unique to each trade or professional association. The Institute of Association Management has produced a list of the 13 key attributes of association management CEOs which is handy for ticking off the bullet points on a job description. But I believe a great CEO has both emotional and analytical skills. And don’t forget the physical aspects of the job too!

Head

The very essence of any membership organisation is communication. Be it oral, written, or via social media, the CEO – especially in a small organisation – is generally the communicator in chief. Engaging, communicating, empathising, should be in their DNA.  But don’t mistake this for broadcasting! Communication is a two-way street, with ideas flowing in and out. Thought leader you may be, dictator you are not! Sometimes you’re an agony aunt listening, analysing, and resolving professional and personal issues with board members, officers and staff. And only occasionally will you get to unleash you inner Henry V!

Politician, ambassador, and diplomat are also within the remit of the successful CEO. The ‘conduct of relations between nations by peaceful means’ is how the dictionary puts it. But the ability to communicate and negotiate at all levels with people from different backgrounds and organisations and cultures is probably closer to the mark. So, it goes without saying that you must be a people person, able to connect, and be approachable.

A lot of hot air is expended on the subject of leadership. Quite whether leaders are bred or nurtured isn’t clear. But whichever it is, you won’t go far as an association CEO without this quality.  Motivating and managing Boards, volunteers, officers, staff, and members, is an uphill battle unless you have natural leadership qualities. Brushing up your skills can’t hurt, but personally I don’t put much faith in self-help books, mantras, and seven point plans. Leadership is a complex formula that mixes head and heart in different quantities according to the situation. Ticking boxes just isn’t enough!

Entrepreneurship is frequently required to devise and exploit money-making schemes. Unless you are very fortunate there is generally a gap between the income from membership subscriptions and out-goings. In most cases it will be down to you to fill it, and this is where your innate business acumen comes in. The business person in you will always be switched on.  Identifying, developing and implementing events, training, publications, sponsorship, and other income generators.

To quote George Orwell’s “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past” or, Winston Churchill’s, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it”, in the same sentence may be to stretch an analogy to breaking point. But it neatly illustrates what politicians and historians have always known; that control of the written record confers power on the author. So, in the association context, the person who signs off the Minutes, or writes the business-plans, reports, and memoranda, wields considerable authority. If they in turn translate the decisions of the Board and sub-committees into actions, they influence the speed and direction of travel. And if they can also write meaningful articles they control the narrative that influences internal and external observers.

So, armed with the skills of a planner, guiding strategic direction of the association and developing appropriate plans; a project manager, planning, directing and implementing major projects and events; and a lawyer, familiar with company and/or charity law and appropriate regulations, you will be almost fully equipped. But not quite. Because the ability to understand budgeting, accounts and reporting, and have a firm grasp on governance are also essentials in the CEO’s tool kit.

Finally, and not to be underestimated, are the physical and mental resilience needed to withstand a punishing schedule. A thick skin, the capacity to act alone, and brush off occasional assaults on your reasoning, integrity, and goodwill are a must! And a robust constitution is a blessing! Early mornings, late nights, travel – in the UK and abroad – all take a physical toll. As do the demands of ‘socialising’, which may involve excess eating – and other temptations – and maybe even loss of sleep! Add that to the need to always be well turned out, bright-eyed and receptive, and you’ve cracked it!

Reviewing your strategy and communications? Can I help? Over twenty years’ association management experience.

Bavaria 1

Michael Hoare FIAM

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Benjamin Franklin supposedly once said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail” whilst Thomas Edison is credited with, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Both are catchy quotes, but do they get us any closer to understanding the value of planning? Learning from our mistakes is one thing, but doing only that would be a random, time-consuming, and even dangerous way to manage!

Rowing 8

Think of your role running an association as being the cox of a rowing eight. With your team-mates all powering away with one sole objective, it looks like you’re having an easy ride sitting at the back. But really your focus is half a mile ahead to the next bend, and beyond that to the finish line. Your team all want to get across the line, but you are the one making gentle adjustments to the tiller and varying the pace and power input to suit conditions, all with the longer view in mind. Make unreasonable demands on your crew and they burn out too soon. Yank the tiller from side to side and you collide with the competition, strike a bridge, capsize, or hit the bank. To win races you need an agreed objective, a strong crew, and a skilled navigator with a clear view of the course ahead and a vision of what lies beyond the bend!

Only trouble is, some associations lack clear objectives, or lose sight of them amid the pressures of day-to-day survival. So staying on track, let alone changing course to avoid fresh obstacles, is a challenge; new initiatives a test of stamina. So it’s hardly surprising that almost 70% of projects fail to hit target. But the reason they fail isn’t always lack of effort from the crew, but failure to do adequate research and forward planning. What’s needed are strategic objectives, wisely allocated resources, effectively managed time, and a clear change methodology. And perhaps that way we’ll stop trying to fix organisations symptomatically rather than systemically.

Of course, one of the challenges for bosses is finding the time and head-space to research and plan. And like-minded brainstorm partners! Or better still a skilled and objective third party to guide you through writing an unfettered wish list of the things you’d like to magic away. Having attributed a 1-10 pain scale to those issues, you can thin them out by trimming anything below an 8 to derive an initial agenda. Ranking these again, this time for difficulty between 0 (requiring an act of God) and 10 (easy-peasy), and having considered the ‘rocks in the road’ which will either block further progress – or stimulate a burst of tangential or transformative thinking to get around them – a final set of challenges will emerge.

Only now is it time to look at the belief system, readiness, and capability of your organisation. Break them into their component parts, and analyse the gaps between your ultimate objective and the organisation’s current readiness. Along the way you’ll also have to account for critical mass, survivability, impact on the team, and the impact on your membership and financials.

By the end of all that you won’t be in any doubt when somebody asks, “What is the process for accountability and quality of execution of your mid-term plans? Is there a process? Have you separated it from operational and everyday management? And, are the right people involved? You could, with equal confidence, break the familiar logjam of continual ‘circular’ re-examination of the same issues, that so bedevils so many membership boards! Or would that be too much to ask?

Reviewing your strategy and communications? Can I help? Over twenty years’ association management experience. Bavaria 1 Michael Hoare FIAM Institute of Association Managers
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It may be flattering to be asked to join your trade association’s board but it could also be a very bad career move. So, before joining, you should conduct your own due diligence, and start by asking some probing questions.

All aboard the associationServing as a board member is one of the most challenging and rewarding of assignments, whether in the commercial, not-for-profit, or membership sector. But, while appointment or election may be an honour, board members have important legal and fiduciary responsibilities that require a commitment of time, skill, and resources. Prospective board members should do themselves a favour – and show that they are serious about the commitments they make – by asking some basic questions before joining any organization’s board. Probe the member who issued the invitation to join; the chief executive; the chairperson; and other current and former board members. Anyone with inside knowledge!

Start by asking for copies of the board minutes from the last 12 months and study them to see what has been agreed and achieved. You’ll find yourself defending those decisions whether you like them or not! Note how many directors showed up to meetings, and whether decisions were reflected in the company’s strategy and performance. While you’re at it find out what the organisation’s mission is, how its current programs relate to it, and if they have a strategic plan that is reviewed and evaluated on a regular basis?

Study the calibre of the other board members. Find out what experience they have, what they have done in their past careers and what their reputations are like in the industry.  Most importantly of all, check out the chairman. A board’s performance will reflect their talent and management abilities. After all, this person is the board’s manager.

The chairman should oversee each meeting, keep discussions on track and on topic, and recognise when there is an issue – when a topic is too big to be solved in one meeting – and when offline meetings, or further information-seeking sessions, are required. A good chairman will recognise when specific directors are struggling or not pulling their weight, and will take action. And when certain directors are overly forceful in their opinions, a great chairman will restore balance and ensure every voice is heard before a decision is made.

He or she should also be able to tell you about the structure. What about descriptions of the responsibilities of the board as a whole and of individual members? What about committee functions and responsibilities?  Is there a system of checks and balances to prevent conflicts of interest between board members and the organisation? And for your own peace of mind, does the organisation have directors and officers liability coverage?

Problems aren’t always visible from the outside. After all, a board’s job is to appear balanced and always in agreement even when it is not. So look for signs of dysfunction. These include regular resignations and appointments; organisational underperformance; the constant missing of objectives; and the CEO and senior management struggling for support. What about the board’s relationship to the staff – particularly the executive staff – and how do board members and senior staff typically work with each other?

Do a bit of probing into the finances too. Are they sound, does the board discuss and approve the annual budget, and how often do board members receive financial reports? Who does the organisation serve, and are the clients or members satisfied?

Once you’ve done all that, get down to the personal stuff.  What can I can contribute as a board member? How much of my time will be required for meetings and special events? Am I committed to the organisation’s mission? Can I put its objectives above my own professional and personal interests when making decisions as a board member? Can I contribute the time necessary to be effective?

If you can answer all those questions to your own satisfaction you’re almost there. Now all you’ve got to do is get elected!

Reviewing your strategy and communications? Can I help? Over twenty years’ association management experience. Bavaria 1       Michael Hoare FIAM
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Sports Direct is facing heavy criticism in the press. Its board labelled as dysfunctional by the Institute of Directors (IoD) for failing, among other things, to check the powers of founder and executive director Mike Ashley. Apart from major decisions being made without board level consultation until the very last-minute; an atypical board structure; and unexpected decisions being made with no explanation, the Sports Direct board comes in for flack for its unusual governance. Have associations anything to learn from this example?

Dyfunctional by association

According to reports in The Guardian newspaper, Sports Direct`s chairman, Keith Hellawell, told a recent commons Scottish affairs select committee that non-executive directors were unaware of a plan to put part of the group into administration until the day before it happened, despite discussions with the administrator over nearly three months. Two hundred workers lost their jobs as a result. A handful of senior executives took key decisions without any discussion at board level, and one shareholder is facing legal action from Sports Direct after he sought access to the retailer’s shareholder register to gain support for a campaign on the use of zero-hours contracts.

Whilst the Sports Direct board may be an extreme example, I could name at least one membership association in a similar fix. So, with the effectiveness of a board and its members able to make or break an organisation, is it time to ask – how functional is my own board, and is it making good decisions? Membership boards aren`t exempt from failure after all!

Some forms of dysfunction may  be easily addressed but others can be much more difficult to resolve. In my experience, ninety percent of the time the problem is the wrong mix of people. They may have been  appointed board members because of their expertise, experience, great reputations and networks, and often due to their strong personalities. But this can sometimes prove a toxic mix!

There are numerous reasons why individuals sign up for board positions in the first place, and understanding these can go a long way to explaining dysfunction in the boardroom. Sometimes, its purely for ego’s sake, believing the role will look good on their CVs, rather than out of a true interest in contributing to the board and in doing their fair share. I know of boards where directors simply don’t turn up for regular, scheduled meetings. And others where they almost never read briefing notes. Plus, un-remunerated volunteers may give low priority to their duties.

Sometimes it is the inability of the chairman to keep order, prevent side meetings, and make sure all points of view are heard – curbing the bullying or garrulous, and encouraging the timid – so that the discussion flows and timely decisions are made. Postponement and procrastination are the enemies of decision-making. And failure to instil the principle of `cabinet government` – whereby the whole board puts its weight behind its collective decisions – can leed to a leaky and divided board. Directors must also leave individual self-interest at the door, acting only for the common good. Some trade association directors find this latter principle very hard to grasp.

So, a vital job for any board is to monitor  its own performance – with the help of an independent observer – to see if there is remedial work to do. The outward signs of board dysfunction should be easy to spot, and may include churn in the boardroom and among senior management; a CEO who struggles because of lack of support (a CEO running rampant can, conversely, be a sign of Board weakness); and constant failure to meet objectives in an otherwise healthy market.

The effects can be severely damaging. The business will undoubtedly lose good people and will make bad decisions. But there is no quick fix and severe damage can be done during the time it takes to remove and replace under-performing, dead-weight, or wayward directors. Nip the problems in the bud at an early stage. Don’t waste precious resources firefighting after the event – risking the loss of members’ confidence – with all that can entail in terms of lost revenue. Take action now!

Latest reports indicate that in the Sports Direct case, one result may be an AGM vote against the retailer’s executive deputy chairman by an influential shareholder. Where that will lead is not yet clear, but it’s a stark reminder that playing fast and loose with governance can have unhappy consequences for all boards – including associations!

Bavaria 1

Michael Hoare FIAM

@mjhoare

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As the Labour leadership contest proved, the merest hint of uncertainty over the conduct or legality of a selection process can seriously damage the credibility of an election in the minds of the voters. Even a whiff of mismanagement will leave a bitter taste of dissent lingering amongst the electorate.

Cock-up or conspiracy all become one in the minds of those who have begun to question the validity of the process and therefore the result. My recent experience confirms that some associations’ procedures are in desperate need of independent scrutiny.  And history has shown us that governments adopted on the basis of a dubious selection process almost always fail to maintain the trust of the people. Except, of course, for dictatorships, and they just don’t care!

So, electing governments is one thing, what about day-to-day decision-making?  How many times have you, as a trade association manager, been asked your membership’s view on a particular issue, policy, or piece of legislation, only to realise that you are completely in the dark? And, in all honesty, how many times have you responded to such an enquiry – possibly from the press – with your own best guess; hoping that the majority would tow the party line and follow you over the barricades into the thick of battle?

We’ve all done it, and because we’re all seasoned campaigners – with our ears to the ground – we generally get away with it. But what if your judgement call goes awry? Second-guessing the mood of your constituency is a risky business, and careers can be seriously dented by getting it wrong. Why not limit the risk by asking your members what they really think? Most often, the answer to that question is that to do so would be costly, time-consuming and possibly wasteful. But what if it was none of these? Enter the digital democracy!

A couple of years ago, during a fascinating IofAM discussion,  – which utilised SMARTvote devices to take quick polls from the floor and encourage discussion around various points – Electoral Reform Services (ERS) asked participants to consider if digital technology could be applied to democracy. Along the way they demonstrated that online voting is an effective way to reduce an association’s printing costs, provide wider communication choice for members and be more environmentally friendly.

However, not everybody is comfortable with computers and it is vital in a democracy to ensure that no voter is disenfranchised: the right mix of communication methods need to be employed. Maximising communications and using social media within an election context is a powerful way to raise its profile and foster engaging discussion with the electorate. But unfettered it can also backfire badly leading to the dissemination of half-truths, falsehoods, and even character assassination.

So digital democracy is about much more than just social media. There are other barriers to voting online. These include lack of trust in the security of the process; technophobia; and voter fatigue or cynicism. However, as more commercial transactions take place digitally, and security improves, electorates may become increasingly comfortable with online voting. And if the effective capture and use of data allows for targeted communications it may also increase the ‘buy-in’ to online polling and elections.

But where does that leave Association management skills? Will there be any further need for judgement and experience once all options can be tested – Swiss style –  by referendum and all decisions can be digitally ‘crowd sourced’?  Can we really trust the wisdom of crowds to get us through? Or is a wily CEO with his / her ear to the ground still the best barometer of member opinion?

Bavaria 1

Michael Hoare FIAM

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