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November 30, 2023

Building the Optimal Board and CEO Partnership


The association CEOs we surveyed for our recent governance report pointed to the board’s strength in strategic leadership as the most essential characteristic of building a board with strategic agility.

How does the optimal board and CEO partnership play out in reality? We spoke to the leaders of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), who shared their journey in achieving strategic agility through impactful board-executive relationships.

ASHA CEO, Vicki Deal-Williams and Board President, Dr. Robert Augustine discussed how they’ve built nimble structures and processes that support strategic leadership and help the association remain responsive to the changing landscape and member needs. They highlighted ASHA’s efforts to maintain a pulse on the environment, keep the board agile and enhance communications between leaders and members.

Ear to the Ground

ASHA’s board plays a key role in monitoring and acknowledging members’ realities. All board members have made it a priority to tune into the voice of members through listening sessions, live chats, interviews, focus groups, and forms that members can submit through the website. Board members also present at state association meetings to connect with members on the ground. There is a continuous feedback loop between the board and staff to ensure that the association factors in all emerging issues and responds to member input.

How does ASHA anticipate what’s coming down the pike? Ms. Deal-Williams explained that she and six chief staff officers (who constitute ASHA’s Facilitating Team) engage in generative discussions with directors during board meetings, using ASAE’s Foresight Works action briefs.

On a yearly basis, the board prioritizes five topics to tackle and the president and CEO work to schedule a discussion of one of these topics at each board meeting. The topics cover a wide range — from social and economic trends to the impact of AI and other technologies on the field. The discussions probe future trends, anticipate issues, and help to deliberate current questions in the context of the potential direction the association might need or want to go.

Dr. Augustine said the board works closely with staff to define strategic priorities that address member needs and their decision-making processes are data-informed. The board also develops goals but leaves the “how” to staff. While the board makes final decisions about strategy, staff are free to express opinions, raise concerns, and offer suggestions — all of which they can freely do because there is a culture of trust and candor.

Nimbleness & Diversity in the Board

Does ASHA’s board structure support agility and help the association embrace change? Yes, but it wasn’t always the case, emphasized Dr. Augustine and Ms. Deal-Williams.

Formerly, ASHA had a governance model with representatives from every state who served on a very large legislative body. They only met once a year at their convention, and nothing was decided until they met and sent the resolutions to the executive board. However, ASHA recognized that the model did not let them respond quickly and effectively. They moved from a bicameral to a unicameral board over several years.

“Today, we have a 17-member board of directors and we have the necessary mechanisms in place including ways to finance an issue when it emerges as a critical issue. This structure is nimble and responsive and working beautifully,” Dr. Augustine said.

He explained that elections did not bring in board members with diverse views who could see the big picture on issues. To create a diverse board with lived experiences, ASHA stepped away from elections for all roles. The association transitioned to a hybrid election where most board positions are slated by its Committee on Nominations and Elections. Board president and vice president candidates are identified and selected through an overall approval or disapproval.

The committee has a more diverse pool of candidates to draw from, thanks to diversity goals set by the board for all volunteer-appointed positions. The committee has increased board diversity across dimensions like gender, age, race/ethnicity, work setting, profession, and job role or function.

Ms. Deal-Williams noted, “We’re still working on this and probably will be for some time, but when you look at our board of directors, it looks very different than it did several years ago.”

Ms. Deal-Williams pointed out that while recruiting board members, it’s critical to outline the expectations — describing the current state and desired state — to recruit individuals who believe in the value of the outcomes that can be achieved with those expectations. It then becomes the norm and is built into the board's culture. These expectations are continuously reinforced at every level. Those who serve on the Committee on Nominations and Elections are in lockstep with the expectations as well, so they’re looking for aligned board prospects.

To further strengthen the governance structure, board members complete a self-assessment every two years — weighing in on their experiences, strengths, and growth areas. The board president and president-elect put a team together to prioritize needed improvements.

The association’s next board retreat will focus on all leaders owning their individual biases to collectively embrace those differences to drive more decisive leadership and establish the needed capacity to innovate.

Robust Communications Structure

ASHA’s multipronged communications processes ensure that the board, members, and staff talk to each other in meaningful, efficient and actionable ways. Ms. Deal-Williams and Dr. Augustine host quarterly, virtual CEO Live Chats with members during the evenings where they engage directly with members, responding to member questions about ASHA’s work and listening to challenges members face in their professions.

Members can also submit “Board InTouch forms” via ASHA’s website to inform the board of their concerns. Board members review a monthly summary of the problems and responses and provide feedback to staff to help them respond to members on behalf of the board.

ASHA’s board strongly partners with the Facilitating Team of chief staff executives. Each board member has a staff partner to work with them to enable targeted communications and efficiencies. The staff partners who serve as liaisons to ASHA’s other committees, boards, and councils are able to keep their board partners fully informed and draw on synergies.

“There is a culture of transparency and openness at all levels, which paves the way for trust,” Dr. Augustine explained. He and the CEO are well aligned, communicate regularly and have a direct line of communication with members through the CEO Live Chats. “Our members can talk directly to me and the CEO about an issue and I think that has created a good sense of trust with our members, so they don’t feel so distant from what's happening at the national office. I think sometimes, as organizations get large, people feel less connected to them. So the connection has been a very positive experience for us overall.”

To learn how McKinley works with associations to build nimble and responsive governance ecosystems, download our report Next-Level Governance™: Leading with Strategic Agility, and contact us here


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