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Building Trust in the Boardroom

Pew Research Center learned in a 2015 survey of Americans that trust in the federal government was among the lowest levels in the past 50 years. Only 19 percent of Americans say they can trust the federal government always or most of the time … and that was before the 2016 election! Distrust in leadership and governance in widespread.

Many clubs struggle to build and sustain trust in the board and the club’s governance. Common complaints in member surveys involve a lack of transparency from the board and ethical inconsistency—as in, “says one things and does another.” The question for club leaders is, “How can the board be more trustworthy?”

Trust is defined as a “reliance on the character, ability, strength or truth of someone or something.” Trustworthy club leaders are those who adhere to and act on an established standard of core beliefs through good and bad times. If a board is going to be trustworthy it must frequently speak of trust and the actions that sustain trust. Rather than talking about appearances, it is the board’s actions that members watch.

What trust-building actions can club boards take in the untrusting times?

1. Lead by Example – Show that you trust others. That means trusting one another on the board, the manager and the committee leaders. Show the club’s members what mutual trust looks like in a private club.

  • Be Direct and Respectful in Leading the Club – Present only the unvarnished truth with empathy and in a helpful manner. Keep confidences. Don’t place blame. Admit mistakes.
  • Don’t Place Your Trustworthiness at Risk – Take a stand. Some board members make promises that they do not—or cannot—keep. Some leaders undermine their credibility when they appear to be self-serving or do not follow through on promises.

2. Hold Yourself Accountable – Many club leaders wish to be above the rules of others. This desire to not be held to account fosters distrust. Remember the simple note that General Dwight Eisenhower wrote and placed in his pocket on D-Day. General Eisenhower took ownership of “any fault” should the Allied landings fail in their mission.

  • Demonstrate Trustworthy Behavior – Execute and routinely reference the mutual pledge of confidentiality shared by all board members. Keep the business of the board in the boardroom. Each club board should maintain confidentiality and whistleblower protection documents for all to see.
  • Self-Evaluate the Board – Require each board member to respond to a simple five-question survey to evaluate his or her performance and that of the collective board after each meeting. Publish the results—and board evaluations—of the meetings for all members to review in a timely and thorough manner. Record the fact that the discussion occurred and that “for reasons of confidentiality the discussion is not being shared” when confidential matters are discussed by the board. Boards build trust when they hold themselves accountable to the members they serve.
  • Deliberate as Many and Govern as One – There should be differences of opinion and earnest, honest discussion within a functioning board. Deliberation, collaboration and compromise are the business requirements of the board. Individual opinions, viewpoints and arguments should be kept to the confidentiality of the boardroom. Board decisions must be “owned” by all members if the board wants to be trusted collectively and individually.
  • Conduct “Trust” Polls – Like a satisfaction poll, which is a simple snapshot series of questions dedicated to a specific topic, such as trust or satisfaction, the board should ask members to communicate their level of trust in the board and its work.

3. Eliminate Cliques – A clique is any group of people to which you are not included or welcomed. Cliques and cliquish behaviors are detrimental to the common trust and collegiality important in private club life.

  • Break Down Cliquishness in the Boardroom – Discuss a zero-tolerance approach to narrow-interest groups and cliques of board members. Be open in addressing the significance of a functioning and cohesive board. Respect different viewpoints and find common ground. These discussions are about successful influence and not about power.
  • Govern the Whole Club – Emphasize that your board of servant leaders represents the entire club without personal agenda and singular points of focus. Make that promise to your member—and keep it. Repeat that message and act it out.
  • Get to Know One Another – Reference Doris Kearns Goodwin’s brilliant description of Lincoln’s Cabinet selections in her masterful history, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Note the importance of helping the board work effectively together as respectful peers and equals. Your board will be more effective when they better understand one another.
  • Discuss Trust Issues Openly in the Boardroom – Do not sweep feelings and issues of distrust under the rug. When—or if—there is a problem of trust, address it.

4. Communicate Regularly and Clearly – One of the common complaints of club members is the lack or ineffectiveness of communication from the club. “No one knows what’s going on around here!”

The bloom of the Information Age demands that members be informed. The instant availability of communications tools and content to be communicated is growing exponentially for private clubs. The National Club Association offers a treasure trove of guidance for private clubs needing to communicate better.

Consider four mission-critical ideas:

  • Bring Proof – Do the things the board promises and demonstrate the objectives, process and results. Keep score on the board’s performance and post that score in the same fashion as competitive golfers. Board’s that take ownership of outcomes—whether good or bad—earn trust.
  • Manage Your Brand – A brand is a small piece of real estate that you own in a consumer’s brain, according to Al and Laura Reis in The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding. Most clubs struggle to understand their brand and inconsistently attend to the brand promise. Know it and nurture it. What does your club stand for?
  • Be Redundant – Remember the rule of three: people typically retain three important things like “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” “stop, look and listen,” and in the case of the new iPad2, “thinner, lighter, faster.” Private clubs that use memory science can make their messages “stickier.” Also, use multiple media options such as the club’s email blast, social media snippets and club-wide meetings. Clubs serve multiple generations that receive and use information differently and using different media platforms. Repeat what you have said until everyone has gotten the message.
  • Listen – Members trust leaders who listen to them.

Clubs built on a foundation of trust prosper. Servant leaders in those clubs enjoy their terms of service and feel that their efforts are worthwhile.

Henry DeLozier is a principal at Global Golf Advisors, a Legacy Alliance Partner of the National Club Association. GGA serves club management professionals from offices in Toronto, Phoenix and Dublin (IR). He can be reached at [email protected] or visit