Vol. 39, No. 5

Extraordinary boards, exceptional leadership: Governance expert shares tips at BLI

by Marilyn Cavicchia

“What would happen if our entire board went on a cruise?”

That question, said Vicki Clark, is a great way to ascertain whether your board is one that “adds significant value” by moving the mission of the bar forward, or whether it simply exists to fulfill a legal requirement.

If your answer was that no one would miss the board—or worse, that it was about time that they all left—then perhaps you can make use of the guidance that Clark, a consultant based in Memphis, shared at the 2015 ABA Bar Leadership Institute.

An extraordinary board, said Clark, whose Memphis-based consulting firm is called Building the Capacity of Organizations, knows that “We are leaders of people.” It’s all too common, she explained, to think of members and the association itself as being separate—and to focus more on the structural underpinnings than on the people who belong.

Five key questions for the board

As one framework for her discussion, Clark referred to a set of five questions from the late management consultant Peter Drucker. They are:

1. What is the mission?

This goes beyond the mission statement, Clark believes, and really pertains to where the association is headed—or, as she put it, “What journey are you on?” Often, she said, a board will get “hung up” on the words, punctuation, and other details in the mission statement, which is then filed away somewhere.

Even if the mission statement is printed on the bar’s letterhead, website, business cards, and other places where it will be seen, Clark said, that’s not enough of a focus on the mission. The board must also frame any discussion of new ideas to focus on the question, “Will this idea move the mission forward?” Clark advised, adding, “Anything that’s not moving the mission forward is backing it up. There’s no standing still.”

2. Who is the customer?

Drucker defined “the customer” as those whose lives should be most affected by the organization, Clark said. Many organizations, such as bar associations, have more than one customer, but it’s essential to choose just one as the primary customer, she added. For bar associations, she said, that would be members (though some unified bars might consider the public to be their primary customer).

If members are the customer, then it’s important that the board have a good grasp on who those members are—including factors such as their age, gender, racial and ethnic background, and how and where they practice.

“We usually like to lead from our own reality,” Clark said, but it's important that leaders not assume that their focus and frame of reference are the same as everyone else’s.

Board members must be able to pull back from their own reality and understand those members who are not their friends and fellow bar leaders, she added. “Make sure that everyone on the board knows the customer—and respects the customer as an asset,” Clark stressed.

3. What does the customer value?

This is something deeper and more personal than what the customer needs, Clark said, noting that for members of a unified bar, “What value does membership add, even if I have to join?” is an important question. After all, unified status can change, and you want members to be fully invested, not just writing a check because they have to.

The board must be a truly representative body that knows and cares what the customer values, Clark said, and focus groups and other such mechanisms may be required in order to gain that understanding.

Gone are the days when customers could be taken for granted, Clark said, or when it was sufficient for board members just to attend meetings. The nature of the societal changes that are rocking the legal profession, the association world, and other sectors are such that “the board meeting is the least of your work”—that is, Clark explained, every board member must be “out there,” attending events and meeting members where they are.

4. What are our results?

Here, Clark referenced Drucker’s belief that the results you really want are “changed lives and changed conditions”—and what that means more specifically for you depends on how you’ve answered the previous three questions.

5. What is the plan?

How does your board currently operate? And how should it? Clark suggested thinking along those lines in order to come up with a plan to ensure that the board better serves the customer.

One way to start doing things differently, Clark said, is simply to have the board discuss these questions. And that same list can be applied at the micro level, she noted; those five questions can be asked about a particular event, for example.

A culture of inquiry and learning

Whether it’s Drucker’s five or a whole other set, Clark said, the board should spend more time asking questions than it does making statements. It should strive for a “culture of inquiry” and of “independent-mindedness” in which everyone’s ideas have value.

Also, Clark said, “The board needs to be a learning board.” At orientation, she suggested, have each board member say what he or she would like to learn that year, and how he or she would like to grow. Then, throughout the year, devote 15 minutes of every board meeting to some type of learning.

That same spirit of inquisitiveness should apply to the board’s practices, Clark said; these should be reviewed every year or two, she believes. Processes, too, deserve regular review, she said, as “Board work is process work.”

She recommended that no process go longer than three years without a thorough review. Laying everything out on a grid can help the board visualize all of its practices and processes and be more “intentional” regarding how and when they are carried out.

The quotable Clark

Clark shared a number of other observations, many of them colorfully worded. Here are just two examples:

  • “You’re not going to get a crown … no one wants to be a serf in your fiefdom.” Recently, Clark saw an old photo of a woman who was president of an organization and who had a ceremonial sash and crown—and perhaps the power to do whatever she wanted during “her year.” While some on the board may wish to cling to notions of hierarchical power, Clark said, that is now out of touch with what members expect and demand from the organizations they belong to.
  • “Unless you have the heart in the cooler, it can wait until the next meeting.” In other words, bar work isn’t transplant surgery, and there’s nothing so urgent that it must be handled right away, if more careful thought and research are warranted. You could spend 35 minutes discussing an issue, Clark said, only to find out that the board member who brought it up didn’t have all the facts. It’s often better, she suggested, to assign two board members to find out more about an issue between meetings and then share what they learned. And two are better than one, she added, “in case one flakes out.”

Toward exceptional leadership

Referencing the Jim Collins book Good to Great, Clark said that at bar associations, getting the board thinking in the ways she suggested can help it move from success to significance, and from stewardship to exceptional leadership.

Members—customers—now demand and deserve nothing less, Clark said, noting that it’s not just a numbers game.

“If you have 10,000 members, but they’re not engaged,” she said, “so what?”