Can Your Chamber’s Board of Directors Master the Art of Abandonment?

Dave Kilby

As we start to exit the summer months and head towards fall, MANY chambers, especially those on a calendar year, are starting to prepare for their annual board retreat or planning conference.

The annual board retreat can and should be one of the most important meetings of an organization’s year. It’s an opportunity to, as Keith Woods—my long-time friend, mentor, W.A.C.E. Life Member and president of the North Coast Builders Exchange—says, “Look back, look around and look ahead.”

While horizon scanning and assessing your organization’s priorities, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats probably should be a part of most retreat agendas, there’s another thing on the list of what MOST chambers do, or in reality, DON’T DO at their planning retreats. And that is deciding what they are going to stop doing.

Woods also is fond of saying that chambers really only have four things they can do with the components of their program, “You can Keep, Modify, Eliminate or Add.”

The ‘Add’ Mentality

It’s been my experience that more often than not, board retreats end up being “addition exercises.” Everyone has his/her idea of some new idea that the chamber should do next year. This “add, add, add” mentality can stretch an already over-programmed and, most likely, under-staffed organization.

My favorite board retreat was when the incoming Chair of the Board started the meeting with opening remarks that included, “Our plate’s already full, so before we can consider adding ANY new programs, we need to decide what’s on the chopping block.”

I’ll grant you that eliminating programs can be stressful. For one, most programs are a “favorite” of somebody. You’ll also often hear, “That program is a money maker for us. If we cut it, we’ll need to make up the loss of revenue somewhere else.”

With a full plate staring almost every chamber squarely in the face, we can’t just keep adding programs, or our results will be mediocre at best. And if we keep adding stuff, the reality will be “it made the list,” but a lot of things won’t ever get done.

The Art of Abandonment

So what’s my suggested course of action?

How about if a couple of months prior to the board retreat, either the executive and/or the entire chamber staff sit down and take a look at every existing program and label them all either: Keep, Modify, or Eliminate.

Then that list—especially items that have been “nominated” for the elimination chopping block—is shared with the executive committee and maybe the entire board PRIOR to the retreat.

I believe if you master the art of abandonment and follow Keith Woods’ suggestion to “Keep, Modify, Eliminate and (then) Add,” your board retreat will end up being a more meaningful experience that will truly help chart a course for your chamber’s success.

Dave Kilby is the president and CEO of W.A.C.E., and is executive vice president of corporate affairs at the California Chamber.