Chapter 6: Energizing the Board
So what separates “asleep at the wheel” Boards with the ones that accomplish great things? Beyond the roster of the DMO Board, the determining factor is often found in the Board meetings themselves.
As governance expert John Carver says in Boards that Make a Difference, “Board members arrive at the table with dreams…yet, by and large, (they) do not spend their time exploring, debating and defining those dreams.”
In Boards That Work, Doug Eadie goes even further in his indictment of today’s nonprofit Board when he says that they are “frequently ineffectual, reacting rather than leading, rubber-stamping rather than directing (and) enervating rather than energizing their members, providing a boring rather than a challenging experience.”
Ben Franklin may have (unknowingly) described many non-profit Boards best when he penned these words: “What is a Sundial in the Shade?”
While it sounds simplistic, the schedule and format of Board meetings play a huge role in determining whether a DMO will be a Destination Leader…or just another waste of people’s time and talent.
Scheduling. Show me a Board that meets quarterly and, nine times out of ten, I'll show you a group of people that are not Destination Leaders. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that the organization can't be successful. A well-oiled organization with an accomplished CEO can make this format work. But the Board as Destination Leaders? Extremely doubtful. And here's why...
The world in which we live is far too complex and moves too rapidly for anyone to have an impact if they show up for a meeting every three months. Think about it. Let's say a Board is championing a destination project and votes to publicly support a funding plan for a new sports complex. A week after the meeting, a cartel of city council members comes up with a plan to lessen the property tax burden on residents by shifting room tax revenue away from the DMO to the bonds for the complex. In week three, the newspaper endorses the new plan as "visionary" and within days, the Mayor has switched his allegiance and is calling for a vote to approve the project in week five.
They'll be putting out an RFP (Request for Proposals) for contractors before the quarterly Board ever meets again. And don't tell me that calling an emergency meeting to deal with this flare-up is the answer. Destination Leaders don't call emergency meetings because they are in control of their world. The scenario above wouldn't have happened with a Board that took their role more seriously than getting together four times a year.
Oh, and on a side note: The practice of quarterly meetings also stinks because, inevitably, everybody has to miss a meeting once in a while. With a quarterly format, if you miss a meeting...you don't participate for a half of a year!
Destination Leaders can get by with bi-monthly meetings if nothing significant is currently cooking. But, for most Destination Leaders, monthly meetings (with a month off during prime vacation months or December) are crucial if they are to leave a mark on their community.
The Agenda. There are precious few Boards that design the agenda of their meetings, preferring to let the CEO prepare the content for discussion. After all, they say, the CEO has a better grasp of what we need to discuss than we do!
While that may be true, a CEO designed agenda will often drift into two camps: items that are really staff issues and items that are of immediate interest to the CEO.
John Carver calls an agenda heavy with staff issues the “Approval Syndrome.” Boards that don’t take charge of their meeting agenda are often faced with a set of reports to consider and approve. How boring! The heavy lifting has already been done. All that’s left for the Board is to approve, edit or reject somebody else’s work. What a waste!
And, if the Board is discussing the issues important to the CEO, it risks being brought down to a staff decision level again. For, despite the best intentions of DMO executives, the things most important to them are often the issues that they are facing on a daily basis. Unless the DMO is involved in a destination development project or a political action to increase investment levels in the organization, chances are that the CEO will be discussing new program initiatives.
Even if the CEO is focusing on destination and organizational development issues, they are most likely tactical (short-range) in nature. As the effective DMO Board should be talking about strategic (longer-range) issues, it is imperative that the Board designs the agenda to avoid a myopic view of its world and miss the opportunities before it.
In the end, the Board cannot expect staff to tell them what they need to be talking about. If the Board understands the organization’s role in the community, is dedicated to its mission and focused on a strategy for the future, it should know full well what it needs to talk about at its next meeting. The CEO can certainly assist in the preparation of the agenda (and should)...but the Board Chair or Executive Committee should be the initial authority on this topic.
For those Boards that still want an easier way out of the task of setting agendas, we offer the following thought. Chances are that your DMO’s Strategic Plan has a number of primary Goals. Take the number of Goals and divide it into the number of meetings you expect to have in the coming year (for example, 3 goals into 12 meetings = 4).
You’ve just established the lion’s share of your agendas for the year. And here’s how the agenda will go: The first 10-15 minutes of the meeting are spent in approval and acceptance of minutes and financial data. Create some time (10 minutes) for a brief discussion or update on anything that the Board needs to know to be a better informed steward of the organization. And then, the rest of the January meeting will focus on the progress being made to achieve Goal One. In February, the agenda is exactly the same, except the majority of the time spent together is devoted to Goal Two…and so on.
Given 3 Goals and a monthly meeting schedule, the Board will “go deep” into the progress being made on each goal every quarter. More Goals? Fewer meetings? You can still adapt this agenda model.
If you have 4 Goals and semi-monthly meetings, do two Goals each meeting. 5 Goals and Quarterly meetings? Well, that begs the Quarterly Meeting question again...
The Meeting. The best and most productive discussions involve divergent points of view. The effective DMO Board will embrace, honor and value diversity of thought. Not in a politically correct, group hug, sing Kum-Bah-Ya kind of way (that would result in “paralysis by analysis”). But, rather, to insure that all voices are heard before making a Board decision.
It’s a Board culture that needs to be developed and nurtured…and the Board Chair is the one who must passionately pursue this hallmark of great Boards. Board meetings should be a place where contrarian views are encouraged. For without the dissenters, decisions are made in a vacuum.
When everyone is in full agreement on a plan and the excitement is in the air, flaws in the concept are often overlooked. It takes someone to challenge his peers and make them fight for their plan to insure that it is, indeed, the correct path to pursue. While contrarians may not win the day for their side, they often make the plans they oppose better. They help us realize that not everyone is of the same mind. They help us refine the sharp edges that could offend or engender community-wide opposition.
In the end, the Board makes good things happen. And, then, a curious thing happens. Meeting attendance increases because the Board knows that something powerful is going on here. They begin to rearrange their schedules around Board meetings (rather than asking for Board meetings to be rescheduled around their calendar). They don’t want to miss a minute…or a vote. It’s exciting, invigorating and vital. They are part of an organization that is going to “leave a mark.”
Putting Board Members in a Position to Lead. Part of the energy that can be generated by an engaged DMO Board can be found through public visibility. The more visible the members of the Board are in the community, the more they'll contribute.
This happens for two reasons. First, the more a Board Member is seen by others, the more her "stock" rises in the community. Community leaders that may have only heard of her now see her on a regular basis. So does the media. Pretty soon, without ever meeting her, people are dropping her name as somebody that should be considered for this committee or that project. While the illicit video made her a household name, we first knew of Paris Hilton because she did nothing more than show up at a string of high-profile parties where other well-known people were. And, as Woody Allen said, "80% of success is showing up.”
Secondly, visibility is also important because most of us rise to the top of our game when we're in public. We carry ourselves more purposefully and our senses are sharper when we know we're being watched. And, when people begin to expect us to be fabulous, we tend not to procrastinate or get sloppy. Public visibility makes us better at what we do because expectations are enhanced.
So, how do we achieve this visibility for ourselves, our DMO and our Destination? Be like Woody Allen and show up. Chamber Dinners. Urban League Events. Downtown Development Breakfasts. Major Ribbon Cuttings. Mayoral News Conferences (when they are related to the Destination). Anytime the Governor makes a visit to the community. These are all open to the public. Go!
But that's not all. The DMO needs to create its own public events at which Board Members can be seen. Quarterly News Conferences to announce impact statistics or new initiatives. Business-After-Hours events at member or partner businesses. Destination events for which the DMO has provided support.
Between your visibility at Public and DMO-Sponsored events, your level of involvement, enthusiasm and connectivity with other community leaders will soar. And so will the image, effectiveness and clout of the organization.