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Look for the Helpers: Some Guidance to Directors for Working with your Liaisons

More and more, credit union boards of directors have a staff member who helps with the board’s work. The complexities of the organization require this. This person may go by many different titles and have myriad responsibilities. It’s important for directors to know and understand how this help should (and shouldn’t) work. These “helpers” can make a huge difference in the productivity of the board, and likewise should have a thorough education about governance and the boundaries of the position.

By Kevin Smith

Mr. Rogers always said, “Look for the helpers.” This post is dedicated to him and to the spirit of helping that is at the heart of the CU movement, albeit in a very focused way here.

Recently, I was invited to do a Q&A session for CUES with their Board Liaison community. Straight off the bat, kudos to CUES for recognizing this as a distinct audience in CU world that has specific training and education needs. It’s a growing audience that is hungry for information and eager to be of service. It was a great session and I hope to help further and be involved.

That session made me reflective about the development of this position in CUs and the interactions between them and the board. In my 16 years in the movement, this group has clearly grown. It wasn’t uncommon (and still isn’t, really) that the “liaison” was the CEO themself or it is an “other duty as assigned” for someone in HR for example. But more and more, the liaison role is bigger role. The growth in complexity of credit unions and the demands on board members suggests that this kind of support to the board is becoming an imperative.

Things to Consider

Now … all that I’ve suggested above leads me to some conclusions:

  • There will be growing pains.
    Many job hats.

    Liaisons to the board wear many different hats.

  • A new kind of position will mean a learning curve for both the staff person and the directors.
  • Establishing clear rules and boundaries will be very important (and you probably won’t get it right the first try).
  • Board liaisons wear a great many hats.

For Directors to Keep in Mind

  • Respect the difficulty of a position which requires that many hats.
  • The liaison is not there to do board work, but to support board work.
  • For example:
    • An acceptable request: research board portal products and provide comparisons.
    • An unacceptable request: write a board job description and create an onboarding packet for new board members.
  • Be reasonable in your requests. This is not a personal errand runner.
  • Consider the training/education needs and budget for this position. They should understand board roles, issues and governance as well as you do in order to support the board. They also have a thousand other things to know and understand on the operational side of things.

For Liaisons to Keep in Mind

  • You can make a remarkable difference in how productive your board is with your support.
  • Be careful to keep the boundaries clear between your role and the board’s role.
  • Learning about your board members will help you anticipate their needs and keep things easier for both you and them.
  • Overcommunicate: you live this stuff full-time. Board members do not.
  • Learn as much as you can about board work and roles, including board governance. This will help you anticipate director needs.

Over the years, I have a collaborated with dozens of board liaisons, some talented enough to be running the United Nations. For one offsite retreat that I was facilitating, not only were board members attending, but also a great number of senior staff members, and being over the weekend in the summer, significant others and family members would be there as well. Before I left to travel to the event, I received document that included everyone’s name, role, email, cell number, and the names of their attending guests. It was incredibly helpful, but above and beyond in my opinion. Then when I thought I couldn’t be more impressed, I found out that she had taken note of the favorite drinks and snacks of most of the attendees and made sure that they were available during the retreat. Over the top!

But I’m focusing on the minutia here – beyond all of that, she had a tremendous understanding of board governance and the roles of the directors, and had the ability to anticipate needs and questions that would arise and have things at her fingertips to keep things moving and frictionless.

Oil in the “Well-oiled Machine” … Ghost in the Machine … or Both!

I’m hesitant about the metaphor here, but a great liaison is the oil in a “well-oiled machine.” And I’d like to make sure that they are recognized for their value. I want to make sure that they have the resources they need and the training that they deserve. This is beyond restocking the coffee in the board room. And believe me when I say that I’ve planned and hosted enough board/volunteer conferences in my time to know that this audience drinks A LOT of coffee.

I’d love to hear from the liaison audience here, because I’m sure there are things that I missed. Give us a shout and let us know what you think. The board members need to hear from you. 

Cheers to the “Helpers”! Let’s enable them to be support for our own higher levels of productivity.

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