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What is the ideal size for a club board?

Q: What is the ideal size for a club board?

A: Many clubs are saddled with overly large boards, as those tend to be the standard of the day when their by-laws were written many years ago. Too many governors, which we’ll describe as anything more than 12 members, harkens from the days when the prevailing theory of leadership was that more people at the governance table assured all constituents were heard. This approach does in fact result in more voices being present, but it doesn’t mean they are singing the same tune.

Unfortunately, politics and inertia often stand in the way of reformers who support smaller boards, but the reality is a move away from old-school notions of inclusiveness improves decision- making and delivers results. Seating a large board doesn’t reflect the new environment present at most clubs: the increased professionalism and training of club managers, how time-constraints and other factors have reduced the number of members interested in governance positions, and an increase in the tools available to regularly collect member input and feedback. There are more effective ways to tap into member opinions and discover the facts of a given situation than surround the table with well-meaning but fractious governors.

Many clubs find success with a triangular organizational structure for governance where the narrow tip of the triangle represents the board and the broad bottom is the membership’s voice. The Standing Committees serve as the bridge between these two ends. If the club is doing a good job of listening to its members through two-way communications, periodic surveys, occasional town hall meetings and the like, then the committees and management will have the customer end of the equation in mind as they develop policy and programs that reflect the membership’s desires. This information can then be moved up to the board where action can be taken.

Large boards tend to revisit all the committee and staff discussions that have taken place prior to the initiative reaching the boardroom. This is not only a poor use of everyone’s time, but it often undermines the good work underlying the recommended solution. This results in frustration and resentment on the part of the committee that prepared the recommendation.

Smaller groups are typically more effective because the setting creates an environment of inquiry, discussion and resolution. Large bodies tend to do a lot more talking, so they are much less likely to reach a conclusion. The notion of “alignment” is highly sought after in organizations today. One of the reasons it often remains an unfulfilled goal in clubs is that disparate opinions are often left to function as unsettled factions. The lack of resolution means issues fester and re-emerge over time. Smaller boards become teams that have the opportunity to face their issues more directly, resulting in greater harmony and effectiveness.

A smaller board itself will not make the governance process more effective. The “right-sized” board needs to be synched up with a fully functioning governance and management structure that assures the voice of the membership is well-represented in the leadership’s efforts. It should also vary in response to the size and scope of the club. A large city club where members tend to be a little more hands-off in their approach due to busy work schedules will often require a larger leadership team to achieve quorums and share the work load. Almost all country clubs could benefit from a smaller board with nine members representing the ideal size.

Frank Vain is president of McMahon Group, Inc., a premier full-service, private club consulting firm serving more than 1,600 private clubs around the world. He also serves as a director of NCA and chairs the Communications Committee. He can be reached at [email protected]. For more information, visit