Collective needs overrule personal passions

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You just got a seat on your marine trade association’s board of directors? Congrats — it’s a clear vote of confidence and respect to be elected by your fellow members to serve. But after the applause and handshakes, you should not be confused about the serious responsibility you’ve just been handed.

Spring is when many state and local marine trade associations hold their annual meetings and elections. It usually means some new board members are taking a seat. And it’s understandable that the newly elected directors might presume they’re charged with representing the interests and wishes of the fellow members who elected them. Right church, wrong pew.

Members of the board certainly should take into account the interests of all stakeholders in the association. That said, an effective board member who understands his or her charge will see they must always put the interests of the association first.

Correctly, the board members are accountable for the association as an institution — a living entity whose mission is not just to survive, but thrive. The board should always be asking if any action or policy they’re considering will create more long-term value for the organization. What is in the best interest of the association is their primary responsibility.

Don’t misunderstand me. This is not to suggest member needs and wishes aren’t of prime importance. Of course they are. After all, every trade group should have as its basic tenant to protect and increase the business success of its members, most often by doing things that members could not likely do for themselves (state and federal lobbying, boat show production, regulatory monitoring, positive tax policy advocacy, broad market promotions and more.)

But the board is ultimately responsible for making decisions that can define the organization’s success or failure for years to come. For example, every association that produces a boat show wants to spend more on show advertising and promotion. Understandably, the members want as much bang for their space investment as possible. “Risk more and we’ll get more attendance,” is always considered. But because the association’s overall functions are likely funded primarily by the show’s surplus income, the level of risk vs. reward must be carefully weighed against the responsibility of the board to enact policies that generate stability and long-term value for the trade group and its members.

While establishing policies is the function of the board, micro-managing the association is not. That is management’s role and it needs to be recognized by all board members. It is most important, then, that management presents all matters for discussion in a clear way for the directors — identifying the overall context, key factors, all assumptions, the risk(s) to the association and the specific actions recommended. Management’s failure to do so forces the board to manage.

Conversely, it’s the responsibility of every association board to make certain any action(s) taken are clear and actionable for management to undertake.

Finally, it should be the role of the board chairman to take personal time to meet with new board members, discuss how the board functions, identify the responsibilities of a director, share necessary inside information, if any, and bring the newcomers up-to-date on current issues. That eliminates the probability that new members aren’t comfortable and sit back for a few meetings to get the “lay of the land” before seriously engaging.

In the end, a board is a body created for collective wisdom to guide the success of the association for all its members into the future. Individually, board members must have the humility to steadfastly serve and the guts to always do what is right for the association.

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