The term “whisperer” was popularized by the movie “The Horse Whisperer.” A horse whisperer is a person who can calm and work with difficult horses.

It is said the talent takes years of practice to develop the sense. It is also said that nobody can teach a horse by “whispering.” There is no secret process to have horses instantly understand the intention and desired behaviors.

The same can be said for calming and training a board of directors. There is no one formula. There are dozens of influences on board commitment, understanding and effectiveness.

Associations conduct different styles of orientation. It may be in the form of one-on-one training for newly elected directors or training for the entire board conducted annually as a “refresh and blend.”

Board Whisperer

I find most executive directors are qualified to deliver a thorough orientation. The repetitive annual process may drown out the importance of training. You’ll hear, “yeah you told us that last year.” Some directors think they know it all or are interested only in their personal agenda.

Thus, executives turn to someone else to conduct training. Often it is a respected colleague from another association. It could also be an attorney or CPA. And there are people and organizations that specialize in board training.

Michael Jackson, BPharm, EVP & CEO at the Florida Pharmacy Association, says a neutral party can be of benefit for associations seeking to increase member value and support board performance.

He said, “More than 33 years of work with our state's professional pharmacy association (the last 24 years as staff) has taught me a lot in the non-profit world. While experience and training may give me all the tools to address issues that may arise, sometimes ideas and solutions are better received from non-affiliated third parties. This is where the ‘Board Whisperer’ can be of tremendous value. A consultant has the ability to assess whether a leadership team is lost and needs redirection. Their advice and guidance can be a fresh and new perspective on an organization's mission and goals. A neutral party can be of benefit for associations seeking to bring member value in today's evolving marketplace.”

In training, not everything is black and white. To explain fiduciary duties or D&O insurance is easy. But there are nuances regarding behavior, culture, history, wins, pains, structure, patterns, and relationships.

“Even high functioning boards can experience difficulty during crucial conversations. When the goal is to position the organization for success well into the future, a little help goes a long way,” said Robin Painovich, CAE, CEO at the Career & Technical Association of Texas.

Here’s where a “board whisperer” can help:

Founder’s Syndrome: The concern that the founder of the organization remains in a leadership role or has serious sway over decisions of the board.

House of Delegates: A representative body meeting infrequently that often believes they have more authority than the board of directors.

Groupthink: An occurrence when the enthusiasm of the board replaces knowledge- based decision-making and critical analysis.

Micromanagement: Second-guessing the authority of the executive director. Volunteer leaders focused more on tactics than strategy.

Fraternization: An inappropriate relationship between volunteer leaders and staff. The relationship should remain professional in every aspect. Directors do not ask staff for inside information or assign them tasks.

Financial Acumen: The board protects and makes the best use of resources. Some directors do not understand a financial statement, believing wrongly, “somebody else is watching the funds.” A frequent thought should be, “If these were my personal funds, would I spend them in the same manner we do as a board?”

Representation: Directors get on a board through varied means; membership elections, appointments, chapter designation or they were “in the bathroom” when volunteers were needed. No matter how they join the board, their responsibility is to work as a team advancing the common mission and goals.

Preparation: Board meetings are more effective when directors arrive having read and understood reports. Preparing is as important as attending. It is apparent when directors have not read or understood reports.

Accountability: With leadership comes accountability. Nobody should have to chase down a director who made a commitment to complete or follow through on an initiative.

Culture: The behavior of board members may reveal the culture. Distrust can be sensed. No director should be there for personal gain. Understanding guiding principles such as transparency, teamwork, community, leadership, diversity, and respect, is important.

Conflicts of Interest: It is expected that directors annually and regularly disclose conflicts of interest. An example would be serving on one board and disclosing plans to a competitive board.

Components: Chapters, components or regions can be the strength of an association. But sometimes they wrongly send a delegate to the board of directors thinking they have one purpose — representation of the component. Change hats when you sit at the board table of the parent organization.

Apparent Authority: If it appears volunteers are speaking for the organization, then it is possible they can cause liability for the organization. Be clear about who is the official spokesperson and expected lines of communication.

Transparency: One of the most regarded principles of a governing body is transparency. There should be no secrets, rump sessions, or slush funds. Nobody should try to hoodwink others into acting improperly.

Tactics: Some directors cannot distinguish between tactics and strategy. The board should be strategic, leaving tactics to committees and staff.

Structure: Over many years the structure can become unwieldy. Though it is hard to change or “let go.” Be sure the structure supports a lean, nimble organization, rather than being an anchor. All aspects of the association (PAC, foundation, components, etc.) should be high performing or evaluated for improvement.

Good Old Days: A director who is quick to respond, “That’s not how we used to do it,” and “we’ve always done it this way,” may need to hear from a board whisperer.

The concept of a “whisperer” leaves one wondering. It may be less about delivering information and more about transforming a group to effectively better the organization, industry, profession, or community.