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The shift to an online work environment over the past year has provided an opportunity to not only improve associations’ governance, but to better prepare for the future.

Michele Lui Lord, executive director of the Financial Management Association International; Sudip Parikh, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; and Richard Yep, CEO of the American Counseling Association, explored how to achieve this balance during “Pathways of Governance in a Post-Pandemic World” at SURGE Forward. 

“There were large gaps when governance didn't take place at all, or governance meetings didn't take place at all,” Parikh said. “What the pandemic has brought is because of the use of the technology, it's just a much more continuous flow of communication. That's been really positive.” One of the benefits, he said, was “the executive committee, I definitely think,  gelled more during this period, just because they wanted to understand potential impacts and they wanted to understand our framework for decision making.”

The board of trustees at the Financial Management Association International consists of past presidents. That experience proved invaluable in the pandemic’s early uncertain months, Lord said. 

“When this pandemic happened, I said, ‘Your goal is to use your historical perspective to help us navigate all of these risks and understand how we're going to sustain ourselves and thrive in the future.'” The reminder, Lord added, allowed the board of trustees at the Financial Management Association International to “re-center on the goal of the group, which I thought was great.” 

The future of governance

Who will govern the association in the future also became an important consideration as associations tried to find their footing in a pandemic that featured social justice protests. 

“We have a fairly strong multicultural diversity lens that we look at everything through,” Yep said. “And I think I've seen more of the board members say, ‘How do we enhance the pipeline of those who are aspiring to leadership? And how do we get people who may not be the traditional people who are serving?’” 

Answering that question became a big priority for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which was founded in 1848, a time when diversity wasn’t even an embryonic concept. Now, its entire leadership line consists entirely of women; 40 percent of the board consists of underrepresented minorities. Parikh admits the first president “never imagined that the CEO would look like me.” An update was required

Related: What it takes to update governance documents for a 172-year-old association Learn More >

Parikh said an “evolution and revolution” has occurred in scientific fields. “What this time has allowed us is the opportunity to have the governance catch up with the facts on the ground,” he explained. “And so our governance, the last time it was updated was 1953.” The past year provided an opportunity “to rethink and get set for the next 75 years, in terms of our governance documents, because we want it to reflect the facts on the ground.”

Energizing your board

Yep and Parikh said getting board members with different kinds of experience matters, too. 

Parikh explained that scientists typically do their best work before age 35.  “If you look at our governance, we're hard pressed to find anybody under 35,” he said. “And so how do we build that into the process? How do we get that voice to the table? Because I think we're fooling ourselves if we think that we're not missing something really, really important.”

Fewer members on a board might also help. Lord said the unwieldy size of boards comes from adding members for various needs without “thinking about the association as a whole.” Parikh said “a smaller, but more substantive, group of folks who are working in the governance table” could provide more staff resources for “the exciting work that the members and the staff wants to do.”

That work, Yep advised, needs to be simplified. “I'd like to see one piece of paper handed out to the board and just three questions,” he mused. “It would be, what's the state of the profession? What are world events right now? And how do the actions of our organization help shape those events to align with our mission? Then that's all I want them to talk about.” 

Every board, Lord said, needs someone “to provide the stability and allow this association to make its decision based on the mission of the organization and to move forward.” Don’t be surprised if a member of an association’s young wave fills that role. 

“We have a generational change that is happening,” Parikh said. “And it's not going to happen in incremental steps. It's going to happen like a phase change, like water to ice. And our governance has to be prepared for that, because I can tell you that the scientists that are leading the way in the junior levels right now, they do things just completely differently than the scientists who grew up in my cohort. We've got to be ready for that as an organization.”

What's next?  

Want to learn more by watching "Pathways of Governance in a Post-Pandemic World" or another session of SURGE Forward? Join our membership for 24/7 access to the conferences, workshops, interviews, webinars and assets in our Video Archive.

Pete Croatto
Post by Pete Croatto
June 11, 2021
Since 1998, Pete Croatto has written everything from movie reviews to obituaries to advertorials to ebooks. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, The Christian Science Monitor, Men's Journal, GQ, Shondaland and other high-profile outlets. His first book, From Hang Time to Prime Time: Business, Entertainment, and the Birth of the Modern-day NBA, was released in December by Atria Books. (Buy it here!) Follow him on Twitter, @PeteCroatto.