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Serving on a Volunteer Board

By Dan Bobinski

Many in the workplace seek to give back to their community and their industry through involvement with a professional association. But sometimes that involvement can be more trouble than it's worth.

This past week I spent time on the phone with a friend of mine, Theresa, who's pulling her hair out while serving as a chapter president for a non-profit professional association.

As the new president, she worked with the outgoing association president and the incoming president-elect to outline a five-point strategic vision. But when she brought the strategic vision to the board, two other board members piped up with, "Who are YOU to bring this to the board? We're the board of directors - why should we follow what you want us to do?"

In their opinion, all board members are co-equal, with the president acting only as a facilitator.
Theresa sees things differently. She believes that, as president, she has the right to bring a strategic vision to the board.

Theresa says, "The truth is these folks aren't intentionally difficult. In their hearts and minds they are doing the right thing. They suggested we work [the strategic vision] out together. Yet we have only four 2-hour Board meetings a year."

I happen to know that Theresa spent quite a few hours working with the past-president and the president-elect in working out their five key points. If she had followed the advice of those who complained, the board probably would have spent the whole year talking and not getting anything else done.

An organization must have clearly defined roles, accountabilities, and a chain-of-command. Leaders should work with directors and vice-presidents to identify those items that need a "group vote" and leave the management of tasks to individual Board members. For example, if a board member oversees association membership, there's no need for every other board member to tell the membership vice president how to perform his or her job, unless assistance is requested or problems are becoming apparent.

Margaret Thatcher, former British Prime Minister, once said "Consensus is the absence of leadership." In other words, if every decision is to be made by "the group," then there is no need to have a leader - you simply find a facilitator.

It is a leader's job is to solidify a vision for an organization. Of course, the leader must then get people to buy-in to that vision, and therein lies the challenge. A good leader must communicate the vision and seek input for possible obstacles or better, alternative actions.

When people in any organization have questions on the direction of the vision, they really have two options: They can ask clarifying questions and propose alternative paths, or they can resign. To complain without offering solutions or alternatives serves no purpose.

I also know of another person who had problems serving on a volunteer board. The situation was quite similar to Theresa's. Several people ended up resigning - and rightfully so - when they realized that the structure of the board was not going to be leadership by consensus.

If you choose to serve on a volunteer board as a director or vice president, allow the leader to do his or her job - setting direction and leading the organization. Provide feedback to the leader, but once direction is set, serve in your area of responsibility and don't be a roadblock to progress.

If you're a leader, work with key people to establish and market your vision, listen carefully for input and feedback, and bend only as your principles allow.

Regardless of your philosophy, before you volunteer to serve on a board, make sure you know the leadership structure and are in agreement with it. Make sure you understand roles, accountabilities, and the chain-of-command. Otherwise you might be like Theresa, pulling out your hair.

2003 Dan Bobinski / Leadership Development. Dan Bobinski is President of Leadership Development. He can be reached at (208) 375-7606 or by Email at dan@leadershipanswers.com.

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