Bringing the next generation into governance

When I ask association leaders (both volunteers and staff professionals) what their biggest long-term governance challenge is, the most frequent answer I hear back is the challenge of bringing the next generation of leaders on board.

“Young people don’t volunteer the way we used to.”

“They don’t have the time to devote to volunteering that we did.”

“Their needs and expectations are different than ours were when we came up through the ranks.”.

Each of those statements is probably true enough, although every one of them would do better for some deeper inquiry. When discussing generational issues, oversimplifications and broad generalizations  appear to be the norm, and can do more damage than good.

But the underlying concern of current leaders about future leaders is real, serious and important:

“Who will come after us and ensure the association continues to fulfill its mission?”

And, “How can we engage the younger generation, particularly in the area of governance?”

Serious, selfless and leaderly intentions.  I don’t for a moment doubt the sincerity.

But as I listen to the discussion that follows, there is one question that persistently occurs to me:  exactly who or what are we trying to reform?  

When current boards discuss this issue, do we actually focus on changing the governance system and culture to make them more likely to interest, engage, excite and be rewarding for the next generation of leaders?

More often, it seems to me, what actually happens is the established board, made up of more seasoned and experienced individuals,  is looking for ways to get the next generation to change, not the system.  They struggle to find ways to make the youngsters  more fully understand and appreciate the current governance system just the way it is.  In short, it’s all about trying to make the next generation leader more like we are ourselves, so that they will want to step into the leadership system and culture just as they are.

Are we trying to remake the next generation of leaders in our own image or are we trying to establish a governance model that will be sustainable and serve the membership into the future?  Are we willing to design a governance  model and culture to suit the needs and preferences of the next generation, even if the result is a system we would find uncomfortable ourselves?

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Consensus is not a dirty word

At a GWSAE Speakers Series event a number of years ago, Margaret Thatcher described consensus as the opposite of leadership.  She used words to the effect that consensus is an abdication of leadership obligations; true leaders take you somewhere the group otherwise would never go.

Recently, on ASAE’s CEO network listserv, a rather energetic discussion on consensus also emerged.   One of that dialogue’s most forceful and articulate participants took an equally hardline against consensus, dismissing it as just a synonym for unanimity.  Of course it’s nice when a decision is unanimous, but how often does that happen? In the real world, the majority rules and once a decision is made it is the board’s duty to support the outcome and the staff’s duty to do their jobs and make it so.

Both Lady Thatcher and that association CEO were right, to a point.  The need to “build consensus” can be a too convenient excuse to avoid making hard but necessary decisions.  Or a tactic used by the minority to mire the association down in an endless process of unproductive delay.  Or the well-intentioned but nonetheless unrealistic and naïve effort to achieve an impossible unanimity.  Regardless of the cause, it can leave the association locked in inactivity.

But I felt the need to defend the concept of consensus, and I hope not just because “consensus-builder” is a personal leadership characteristic mentioned frequently in my performance reviews over the years!

Yes, consensus can be used as an excuse for not meeting the unpleasant duties of personal and organizational leadership, and yes it can become the perfect (but impossible) ideal that is the enemy of the good (but achievable) outcome and lead an organization into a paralysis of irrelevance.

But I have too often observed boards where, although every action is unanimous (or nearly unanimous), the absence of underlying consensus reveals an organization in a state of total dysfunction and locked in constant and unproductive conflict.

Conversely, I have viewed boards where the debate over every agenda item is vigorous (sometimes even heated), and the decisive votes are often close, but the underlying consensus on the governing values, principles and direction of the association is so strong that it results in a prevailing organizational and leadership culture that is robust, positive and healthy.

So my bottom line is that consensus is different from vote count.  Voting is just the raw application of numerical power.  Of course votes are binding, but ignore consensus at your peril.  And don’t make the mistake of assuming you have consensus just because you have the votes.

That would be like the politician who assumes and starts acting like the election results have given him or her a mandate for action (particularly for change) that goes much further than it actually does.  The minute they get to Congress and start “doing what the people sent me here to do,” the rug gets yanked out from underneath them.  That landslide vote in the last election does not make what awaits them at the end of their equally sudden fall any less shattering an experience.

The real world of politics (whether in government or associations) is a world where divisions will persist.  Differences that are often deep and irreconcilable.  They cannot be eliminated; they can only be bridged. The leader who understands the extent, and even more importantly, the limits of the existing consensus is in a position to take the association where it needs to go but otherwise would never get to, and equips him or her with the insight needed to take it there.

The leader who knows how to maximize or even expand the scope of consensus is in a position to take the association to new heights.  Consensus isn’t reductive.  It is the key to unlocking the organization’s full potential.