January 17, 2022

Tools for Building Effective Boards

Every association board has its own unique culture, and the culture can change from year-to-year based on the makeup of the board. Creating a board culture that fosters healthy and productive work is important.

Recognizing dysfunction that detracts from effective discussion and sound decision making is crucial. Sometimes dysfunction is obvious such as board members disrespecting or attacking other board members and staff, focusing on operations rather than strategy, and even using the association for their personal gain. Other problems are more difficult to detect.

According to Nancy R Axelrod’s In the Boardroom Culture Counts, the tendency of some CEOs and board members to suppress criticism and conflict can undermine decision making. “Dysfunctional Harmony” can create a Petri dish in which problems can fester.

Having the right tools that work for all board regardless of their geography, industry or size is important.


Building a strong board starts with recruiting the right mix of members. Determining which skills and traits the board needs and including that information in the recruitment materials and selection criteria gives people the opportunity to self-select. If potential candidates recognize they do not have the characteristics needed, they may wait for another time to run. Conversely, the information may encourage someone to run who would not otherwise have considered it.

All boards need a mix of technical skills, leadership skills and industry knowledge. Technical skills might include financial, legal and marketing expertise. Other skills are that are equally important, but sometimes difficult to define are commitment, integrity, enthusiasm, capacity, interpersonal skills, and team orientation. It is also important that board members have the ability to think strategically and to focus on the mission and the short and long term goals of the organization.


In addition to providing new board members information about the association, it is important to provide guidance and a framework for success. Orientations often include the following information:

  • Mission, vision and goals
  • Strategic plan
  • Board structure, culture and expectations
  • Bylaws and policies
  • Training on how to be an effective board member
  • Board, committee and staff roles and responsibilities
  • Team building activities


Team building and activities that foster board member interaction can lead to higher performing boards. In a Harvard Business Review article, “The Key to a Better Board: Team Dynamics,” Solange Charas emphasized that the quality of board members’ interactions is crucial to board success. Her research showed that boards that are able to function effectively as a team have an 800% greater impact on profitability than any one well-qualified board director.


One of the best ways to focus the conversation in a board meeting is through thoughtful agenda design. The mission should always be the primary focus of the organization and the board discussion.

While it is important to recognize the work of the committees and task forces and inform the board regarding achievements and challenges, it is not productive to dwell on the details of the reports. Some organizations use consent agendas to approve the written committee reports as a whole. It also is helpful to limit the time for any operational reports and focus instead on strategic discussions.

Healthy boards recognize that an inclusive and cohesive board makes better decisions than one that follows the voice of one individual. They understand that open discussions drawing on individual perspectives leads to better results.


Conducting a periodic self-assessment helps to determine if the board is feeling engaged and effective, it can also provide helpful information that contributes to continuous improvement. A brief anonymous survey works well for this.


Thank you to Mike Dwyer, Association Headquarters and Mark Engle, Association Management Center for their assistance with this article. The blog was first published by the AMC Institute.