Book Summary: A Guide to Strategic Governance

Governing for Growth: Using 7 Measures of Success to Strengthen Board Dialogue and Decision Making

by Nancy R. Axelrod

In addition to summarizing the measures, the guide outlines why these measures matter to boards, discusses the gap between theory and practice, proposes that the CEO is the linchpin for strategic thinking (one of the study’s key findings), and it concludes with how to prepare your board to engage the seven measures.

This guide explores how associations can use the 7 Measures of Success: What Remarkable Associations Do That Others Don’t to increase their board’s attention to strategic issues and enhance its strategic thinking abilities. The measures resulted from a study conducted by the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) that “identified seven key factors found in associations that remain remarkable year after year.”

Author Nancy Axelrod is an expert on governing boards. She was the founding CEO of BoardSource (formerly known as the National Center for Nonprofit Boards). In the author’s words, [this] publication has been written to help chief executives, board members, and senior staff professionals use the seven measure[s] as a practical tool for enlisting the board’s collective horsepower to strengthen an organization’s capacity to perform and adapt.

This summary is meant to give you an overview of a book that I’ve found useful and recommend to others. A summary isn’t meant to replace reading the book. There is so much more than I can cover here.

Available from Amazon: Print


What Remarkable Associations Do – Seven Measures

  1. Have a customer service culture. Members’ needs and challenges take precedence; that sense of priority is evident throughout the organization.
  2. Align products and services with the mission. While products and services offered may change, what’s offered is tightly linked to the mission.
  3. Employ data-driven strategies. They monitor members’ needs and the issues in the broader environment. They analyze the data to arrive at a shared understanding.
  4. Encourage dialogue and engagement. They foster a culture of information sharing, analysis, and decision-making. Everyone is expected to use data in making decisions.
  5. Look to the CEO as a broker of ideas. The CEO plays a critical role as the go-between – the one who helps others to understand the vision and gets them engaged.
  6. Learn and adapt. Beyond assessing and responding quickly, they learn from crises and make long-term course adjustments when needed.
  7. Build alliances. They develop alliances that fit with their mission, purpose, and strategies. Therefore, they determine whom they should not partner with as much as whom they should.

Why the Seven Measures Matter to Boards

Engaging with the seven measures will elevate the board’s focus and thinking on the strategic issues affecting the association’s future and performance. While the measures may appear to be primarily operational in focus, they have consequences for policy and strategy because they:

  • Are central to the organization’s mission.
  • Predict organizational performance and adaptability.
  • Impact the organization’s ability to build capacity.
  • Shape how the organization responds to changing trends.
  • Affect how the organization practices accountability and transparency.
  • Require board action on related policy or program changes.

The Seven Measures Help Boards Become More Strategic

Perspective and context are essential components of every leader’s toolkit. But, it is easy for leaders to get caught up in the day’s problems, distracting them from the bigger picture – the opportunities and threats.

The best boards stay out of the daily tangle of tactics and problem-solving. Instead, they examine the horizon and determine whether their association’s pace of change is appropriate for the industry or profession they serve. Disciplined action and disciplined thinking are the hallmarks of remarkable associations.

Boards that are either disengaged or enmeshed in the thicket of operations deprive their organizations of their collective intelligence to help attain and sustain high performance.

The characteristics of strategic boards:

  • Their meetings focus on governance, not management, emphasizing the issues and topics most critical to the association’s success.
  • They shape the organization’s priorities through the strategic planning process.
  • They tackle the long-term strategic issues (in dialog with the CEO):
    • Asking for information.
    • Posing good questions.
    • Deliberating robustly but respectfully.
    • Considering divergent perspectives.
    • Challenging assumptions to inform their decision-making.
    • Identifying opportunities, clarifying directions, and addressing challenging issues
  • They are proactive — they act before problems become urgent.

Overcoming the Barriers to Strategic Governance

For strategic thinking to become part of the regular, ongoing work of the board, board members and the staff supporting them must recognize and overcome the following barriers:

  • Lack of experience governing
    • Board members are typically practitioners by day; professionals who are expected to manage instead of govern.
    • Many nonprofit board members have not served in situations comparable to governing boards, where each member holds equal power and decisions are made by consensus.
  • Roles and expectations aren’t clearly defined
    • Organizations often wait until the board orientation to explain the board’s role and its members’ expectations, which is far too late.
    • Many lack adequate board job descriptions, making getting new board members up to speed considerably more challenging.
  • Lack of sustained investment and attention to board development
    • Even among organizations that invest in building internal capacity to strengthen organizational effectiveness, developing the board’s leadership capacity is often overlooked.
    • Board development will not happen by chance; it takes board leadership and investment. Establishing a group norm for strategic thinking takes time, effort, and discipline.
  • Board agendas focused on the administrative
    • Lacking meaningful information for the board to monitor progress from a strategic vantage impairs the board’s oversight role. It encourages board members to meddle in operations or base their decisions more on opinions rather than information and knowledge.
    • Staff can inadvertently invite the board to micromanage by providing primarily administrative information or an excessive amount of operational detail.
  • Committee structures that lead to micromanagement
    • Standing committees and task forces too often reflect the administrative structure rather than the association’s strategic priorities.
    • When committee structure mirrors the organizational chart, board members can be drawn into acting as surrogate administrators or staff supervisors.
    • A board member expected to govern collectively and support the organization individually may easily confuse those roles.
  • Turnover and lack of continuity
    • Because of the high turnover rate in association boards, strategic work becomes more elusive. It becomes harder to sustain the kind of board leadership continuity that can strengthen boards. Moreover, members have limited time to work together and practice how to work collaboratively as a team.
    • Changes in board composition and leadership require continuous investment in board development and education to maintain what works and improve the board’s structure, practices, and performance.

The CEO is the linchpin. The CEO’s leadership and involvement are crucial to the board’s engagement in the seven measures and implementing related changes. The study found that in remarkable associations, the CEO:

  • Serves as a broker of ideas.
  • Engages others in defining, refining, and furthering the organization’s shared vision.
  • Helps board and staff visualize what is possible.
  • Listens to others and is open to their ideas.
  • Inspires and encourages collaboration, communication, and engagement among staff and volunteers.
  • Can step back to facilitate a discussion without the need to impose their view.
  • Doesn’t dictate what will happen but rather enables it to happen.

A culture of inquiry can help. Boards that foster a culture of inquiry are better positioned to implement the seven measures and see results. The characteristics of a culture of inquiry include:

  • A sense of mutual respect, trust, and inclusiveness.
  • Ability to explore divergent views respectfully.
  • Seek out information to make informed decisions and ensure equal access to information.
  • Active feedback mechanisms that drive continuous improvement.
  • Committed to and accountable for following through on the board’s agreements, decisions, and plans.

How to Prepare Your Board for the Seven Measures

Boards and their committees can elevate their strategic thinking and contributions by making time to explore the seven measures actively.

Periodic assessments of the board and its members provide a focus and a forum for the board’s self-improvement. Self-assessment approaches range from informal to formal, such as:

  • Meeting evaluations.
  • Discussions of critical incidents that provide the board with teachable moments from which it can learn.
  • Interviews with exiting board members.
  • Mini self-assessment questionnaires about the board’s effectiveness.
  • Formal board self-assessment processes using diagnostic tools.

Forums and formats to advance a board’s strategic discussions. Many boards approach problems without sufficiently exploring the context, consulting experts, or identifying the right questions and issues before considering options. The seven measures help the board ask the right questions rather than provide answers.

To prioritize which of the seven measures the board takes up first, ask the board and management to identify the critical issues that need the most time and attention over the coming year.

Practices That Enable Boards to Be More Strategic

  • Clearly defined roles and expectations
    • Well-defined qualifications, competencies, and other criteria for the nominations and elections process.
    • Job descriptions for the board as well as staff.
      • For the board, define the role of the board and responsibilities and expectations for individual members.
      • For officer positions, especially the board chair.
      • For all committees and committee chairs.
  • Good plans in place
    • An annual work plan for the board.
    • Plans include measurable objectives and clear performance indicators.
  • Carefully crafted meetings with attention to strategic issues
    • Use consent agendas.
    • Agendas are aligned with the organization’s strategic priorities.
    • Sufficient time for the board and staff to jointly explore important issues.
    • Critical issues flagged for the board in advance of meetings.
    • Time dedicated for the CEO to discuss future matters.
    • Careful attention paid to the board’s time and attention.
    • Items are clearly labeled with what’s being asked of the board.
  • Continuing education for the board
    • An onboarding process for new board members includes an orientation that explains the board’s responsibilities and expectations and the history and culture of the organization.
    • Keep the board up to date on trends in the industry, good governance, and the association’s environment.
  • Continuous improvement guided by assessments
    • Periodic performance assessments for the board, individual board members, and board committees.
    • A reasonable and constructive annual performance assessment for the CEO.
  • A board information system
    • Enables the board to carry out its responsibilities.
    • Helps the board see and understand the big picture.
    • Information is reliable, accurate, and credible.
  • Discussion of strategic issues is supported with information
    • Clear and concise information that makes the most of the board’s limited time for analysis.
    • Information includes sufficient context to help the board better understand the issue’s background, outlook, significance, and consequences of action or inaction.

Summarizing Issues for Board Discussion

The following is a framework for summarizing issues for discussion by the board. Prepare one or two pages that include the following:

Topic: [One sentence or descriptive title that identifies the topic.]

Background: [Provide one or two brief paragraphs that explain how the issue arose, summarize any history or other context that’s important for the board to understand, and provide an update on the issue’s current status.]

Discussion: [Summarize and briefly discuss the available options, the implications of action (or inaction), the pros and cons, and other considerations.]

Action: [Explicitly state the action being requested from the board. Examples:]

1.     ACTION: [Formal board review and approval.]

2.     DISCUSSION: [Seeking advice and direction from the board on the next steps.]

3.     INFORMATION: [Informational or strategic dialog matter.]

Attachments: [List any relevant backup material and include copies as attachments.]

Source: Adapted from National Court Reporters Association model cited in Governing for Growth

Book details and where to buy it:

Buy the book on Amazon: Print*
Page count: 48
Publication date: August 14, 2009
Author website:
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