F24. Board Elections and Appointments

You’ve done a great job as a student leader, and it’s time to move on. However, there is one final task you must complete before you can go: assembling a new board. The selection process for boards fall into two categories: elections and appointments. Many processes are a combination of the two. Elections allow a certain body of members (in many cases the entire body of members) to vote on which candidate they think would best serve in a particular position. Appointments happen when a certain body of members (generally the board) selects a candidate to serve in a position. How you structure this process will have a great impact on the smoothness of your transition and what characteristics are prized in your team’s leaders as a whole.
Assess Requirements
When you’re considering the construction of your new board, you’ll want to consider both the qualities of the individual candidates as well as how the candidates will interact with each other when they’re on the board. The first quality you look for is competence to do that job:
             Let’s begin by outlining the basic positions you need to run any organization and their responsibilities:
  1. President – This is the executor and the person who makes sure the ship is running smoothly.
  2. Treasurer – This person handles the budget, financing, and fund-raising.
  3. Social Chair – This person plans and executes the social events.
You will need to add board members as necessary for your organization. Once you’ve determined what jobs need to be fulfilled on the board, ensure that it’s as lean as possible. Having too many board members will slow down your meetings and dilute power. For each role that you have, you want to have a clear sense of what responsibilities that role entails. Here’s the critical part…write them down and publish them to the team. When applicants are judged either by the general body or the outgoing board, they must be assessed according to the responsibilities that they’re going to assume. In essence, your candidate must be qualified for the job he or she is trying to attain.
             The second benefit of having clearly defined roles appears during your election or selection process. All individuals suffer from implicit biases that make them prefer certain characteristics over others. Most of the time, these characteristics are not relevant to the job at hand. Having clear roles will allow your members to focus on qualities that would promote success in that role as opposed to any other factors that may not be relevant.
NOTE: You want to find a balance between having too few board members and too many. If you have too few board members, you’ll likely burn out your best members and limit the amount of work you can get done. If you have too many board members you run two risks. First, your meetings won’t be as efficient as there will be too many voices in the room. Second, general body members may feel inferior. No one wants to be part of an organization where all their friends are on the board, and you’re just a member. Keep both of these considerations in mind when you’re thinking about expanding the board. In addition, your board meetings should not exceed 10 people. If you have more than 10 people on your board due to the size of your organization then you need to structure your board so that it has internal tiers. As a general rule, a person should only be in a meeting if they have something to contribute.
NOTE: I’m rather opposed to the idea of two people holding one position unless there’s a good reason why two people are needed to fulfill a position. When two people hold the same role, there will generally be a dilution of responsibility with limited accountability. In all likelihood, either one of the two members will be doing most of the work or neither member will take on the responsibility. There may be some positions that require more than one person, but those instances should be few and far between.
             The second point you should consider is that board members rarely operate in isolation. A diversity of opinion is vital in order for the best ideas to come to the fore.
CS1: I advocate for diversity of student group boards because I’ve experienced both a board that was uniform and one that was diverse. Regardless of who you are, you’re most likely attract individuals who are like yourself. As part of human nature, we go to people we feel an affinity to. In my case, the first board I assembled was composed almost exclusively of Asian American men with one Asian American woman taking up the role of social chair. Now this is not to say that all people of a certain persuasion have the same ideas. But people from the same background tend to follow the same lines of thought. My first board often came to agreements quickly and amiably, but concurrently we often failed to foresee the variety of problems that would arise. In addition, there was a visible conformity. When I put out an idea and one or two other board members agreed with me, the rest would fall into line. At this point, I was faced with a conundrum. I had not intended for my board to be homogeneous, and I felt that the lack of diversity was hurting our pipeline of ideas. But I also wanted to promote the best people to board positions. So, I came to the inevitable question that all leaders must ask when faced with this question of diversity. Is my board homogeneous because by happenstance the best people are on it and happen to have similar characteristics? Or is the board homogeneous because of either implicit bias or my own lack of support for diversity within the organization? Well fortunately, board members were largely elected which meant that if I invested in better recruiting tactics to broaden my appeal, my best members would find themselves with positions of authority regardless of non-relevant characteristics. My expanded recruiting initiative eventually created a team that was diverse in outlook and background, and my later boards reflected that. I found that board meetings were less agreeable and took some more time, but when the board agreed on an approach, it generally turned out to be a good one. New avenues were proposed and problems that had not even occurred to me were proactively solved. The diversity of my subsequent boards was vital to our success as I’m sure it will be vital to yours.
Planning/Testing
When you’re selecting board members, there are two main ways to go about it. The first is a general election in which the entire general body selects who they would like to fit a role based on the candidates for that position. If your organization is easily split into sections, an alternative way to hold elections is by section. For instance, the Speech & Debate team could conceivably hold separate elections for the speech and debate sections. A good rule of thumb is this: those who are affected by the leadership position should have a vote regarding who is their leader. The second way is to select people via appointment through an interview or equivalent process. I preferred having a combined approach with the majority of positions being elected. However, I will explore the pros and cons of both approaches so that you can plan your own process accordingly.
The election approach is suitable for most positions that have an impact on the entire organization. Notably the president, treasurer, social chair, etc. Ideally, you want input from the people who will be impacted. However, elections are much more difficult to organize effectively than appointments. There will inevitably be politics and politicking. However, there are some rules of practice which will allow these events to run smoothly. First, you’re going to want to make every attempt to ensure that as many members of the team are present to ensure that everyone has buy in regarding who is selected.
NOTE: I’m a bit on the fence about letting people cast absentee ballots if they’re not present. My thoughts generally are that if the team’s future is important to you, then you should show its importance by showing up and voting. That being said, there may be circumstances where people cannot show up to the election for one reason or another, yet they will still be impacted by the decision. You will have to make your own determination about whether you will accept these types of votes.
Your board should select members (instead of allowing them to campaign) for positions that either are specialized or where an election wouldn’t accurately gauge the most qualified candidate. Elections tend to favor candidates who are better speech makers and improvisers. Unless those skills are important for the position the candidates are seeking, qualifications should trump charisma.
Execution
If you choose an election process, you’ll want to select a time when as many members as possible can attend. It may also be a good idea to have pre-requisites for certain positions so you can filter who is eligible to run. Depending on the number of applicants and the number of positions, you’ll want the election to last enough time to get through them all in one go if possible. Each candidate should be given an opportunity to speak about their accomplishments and their qualifications for the position. Speeches should normally range from 3-5 minutes. Following the speech, there should be a question and answer period lasting about 3-5 mins. Once each candidate has spoken and answered questions, they should be asked to leave the room. Once they’ve left the room, a moderated discussion of their qualifications should be employed for a reasonable amount of time – I generally budget 10 minutes. During the discussion, members must be allowed to comment on each candidate’s experience. Your job is to stay neutral, keep time, and ensure that as many people get to put in input as possible. Following the discussion, a blind vote should be put into place. I recommend sending out an email with the results after everyone has left the room. However, announcing the winner in the room may add a dramatic flair to the event.
If you choose a selection process, you’ll want to have candidates submit applications. Again, having pre-requisites may weed out unqualified applicants. Similar to your tryout process, you’ll want to split the interviews into two sections: test and fit. All applicants for the same position should get the same questions. For the testing portion, determine what a day to day activity might be for a certain position. For a treasurer, you might ask the applicants to allocate a budget. For a social chair, you might ask an applicant to plan an event with a certain amount of money. The fit questions should be tailored to illuminate how the applicant works on a team and what their style of contribution is. Include other board members in the interviews as necessary and determine how a candidate will be selected. Will the present board members have to vote? Will you have final say? Hash out a process and stick with it.
NOTE: The loser of either an election or selection may feel rejected. Everyone is very knowledgeable regarding their own contributions to the team. If they’re applying for a board position, they likely believe in some capacity that their contributions or potential contributions are of value to the other members. Therefore, if they’re rejected, they will feel that the team rejected them, and this can cause feelings of resentment sometimes to the point that they leave the organization. These issues are especially pronounced in small teams where relationships tend to be rather tight. You need to come up with a plan that will provide some sort of solace for the board seeker who did not achieve the position. A brief thank you after the election for their service and dedication may be in order. Don’t go overboard, everyone needs to learn how to deal with failure and rejection. But proactively providing support can minimize fallout.
Questions to Consider
  1. Do you favor a particular candidate? Would it be in the benefit of your team to explain why you favor a certain candidate or would it be better to recuse yourself?
  2. Who will break a tie if your members are split evenly or cannot properly select a candidate?
  3. What safeguards are you putting into place to ensure that unqualified candidates are not selected?

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