The AAHA Board of Directors (as explained by the CEO …)
Garth Jordan, MBA, CSM, CSPO, is a big fan of associations. Before becoming AAHA’s chief executive officer in 2020, he held leadership positions in the human healthcare association world, where he developed a passion for helping industries, professions, and people be the best they can be. As CEO, he serves on the AAHA Board of Directors, and now that he’s a couple years into his time at AAHA, we sat down with him to find out what really happens in one of those board meetings and why who’s there matters.
NEWStat: Many people working in veterinary practices probably see these announcements about new board members every year, but they don’t fully understand what that means for them. How would you explain what the AAHA Board is and why it’s important?
Garth Jordan: If I go back to the root of what a membership organization is, it’s an organization that—I know this sounds trite, but it's there for the members. A professional association is there to support the members in their quest to be the best professionals they can be, in whatever the discipline might be. A trade organization is there to help the businesses be the best businesses that they can be. And we are kind of a hybrid: We help businesses and individuals to the extent that they can be the best businesses and individuals that they can be within their chosen profession.
A board for any of those types of associations helps you keep that as your primary goal. And that's why our purpose is so focused on the journey toward excellence for veterinary practices, because we're focused on helping you be the best you can be. Unfortunately, many associations lose their way. They start chasing things that are outside of that simple and straightforward lane of being about and representing the profession or the business.
NEWStat: How do associations go about doing this?
GJ: There are a lot of options: Some trade organizations are about trying to represent you on Capitol Hill, and they're very much about lobbying. Some trade organizations are about standards, which is core to what we're about. Some associations are really heavy-handed on standards—like [in] mechanical engineering. But, generally, the board is there to really keep you focused and honest about what your purpose is. They help develop, set, and fund the strategy to make that big purpose happen. They're also about being a fiduciary—they’re making sure that your reporting of your financials is true, and that, of course, there's nothing nefarious going on. And that you're investing in a way that will support the purpose and longevity of the organization, whether you're investing in stocks with your bank account or investing in product development for your members.
NEWStat: What makes a good board member?
GJ: As far as an individual board member goes, you want an individual who understands the focus of their role. Having people from the profession and who run a business, in our case, because we're a hybrid, is really important. Because their third job – in addition to setting strategy and being a fiduciary – is not to represent themselves, but to represent membership. They have to leave their personal stuff at the door. They can bring opinions in to the room, but they're there for the greater organization and the greater membership. People on the board aren’t there just for their own whimsical needs. They're there for this bigger purpose, and in our case that’s to simplify the journey toward excellence for veterinary practices.
NEWStat: So what's it really like in an AAHA Board meeting? How would you describe what happens behind closed doors? Like, is it a debate kind of environment, or is it like a party? Or does it vary depending on the day and the topic?
GJ: Yeah, it does vary. That's a good way to say it. On a small scale, if there's any discussion that has a conflict of interest attached to it, board members will recuse themselves. That's rare, but it happens once in a while. On some topics, in every board meeting, there's a lot of discussion—sometimes some debate, arguments, disagreements, and all that good stuff, but all done with kindness and a high level of professionalism. I've experienced boards where that doesn’t happen. So far, so good for our board.
This, to me, is very much a key—they're very careful to separate the difference between fact and opinion. I've been with board members who stated their opinion as if it were fact, and it can be very difficult or misleading to work with those types of people. But our board is very careful to distinguish between fact and opinion. You know, there have been a couple of contentious moments, but nothing's taken personally. It's about doing the work for the organization and doing right by our members.
Our Board is a very, very cordial group. And it’s tightly knit—it might be because they just really like each other, which I think is the case. I think it's also because they just deeply care and they're very passionate about what AAHA’s purpose is and what we stand for, and that they're contributing to something that's got longevity, [that started] before they were born and will likely outlive all of us, we hope, so they take that contribution very seriously.
NEWStat: What's the time commitment? If somebody is out there hearing about our board, what's the expectation for involvement?
GJ: Anyone can read our bylaws on the website to see all the details, but basically, when you're a new board member, you serve one year and then the rest of the board determines whether or not to continue your term. There's a reason for that, which I'll get into in a minute. If you move past that first year, then you've got two more years. After finishing a three-year term, then you can take another three-year term and you can start to get into an officer and a director role, treasurer or vice president, and then, you get into the presidency. You can be on the board for a maximum of eight or nine years if you go through the whole succession.
As far as time commitment goes: Just meeting-wise we have four half-day meetings and two two-to-three-day meetings a year. That's a significant commitment. If you add travel, it’s eight or nine days a year, plus prep work that goes into each of those meetings. And then there are going to be board emails and responses, etc., that might take five minutes here and 20 minutes there; you might be looking at up to three weeks of dedicated time over the course of an entire year.
If you are an incoming president or a past president on the board, that time commitment can double quickly. It depends on the year and what we have going on. So going back to my very first comment, your first year is kind of probationary because the other board members understand how much time it takes. We give that person who's in their role for the first year the opportunity to figure out, “Can I really commit to this board the way that is necessary to do the work that's being requested?” and that's at least part of what the board looks for.
NEWStat: What are you most excited for the board to dig into in the next year?
GJ: Two things: We're really just a year to a year-and-a-half into our strategic plan, and we probably have at least two years left on its implementation and funding to see the results we want. While it's a continuation of what we've already started, this next year we are deep into our strategic plan, so I’m excited for the Board to continue supporting our plan. There are going to be things that don't work the way we planned, and there are going to be things that work as well or better than we planned. It will be really interesting to have conversations around both aspects of a strategic plan: where there's failure and where there's success. Because that will happen regardless of what our overall plans are.
Was it Mike Tyson who said, “Everyone has a plan until they're punched in the mouth”? It'll be interesting to see what happens when, inevitably, we get punched in the mouth with part of our strategy and we'll see how that goes. That sounds very negative, but it's exciting because we get to see how we respond to the good and the bad. But the fact is, we are about to be hip- to chest-deep in the strategic plan. And how we all respond, including the Board, to the successes and failures of our work together will be exciting to see.
The second thing is that we've just started to talk about doing some deep introspection that has less to do with the strategy and more to do with: Who is our board currently and in the future? How are we going to get excellent volunteers for the board? How do we think and act as a board? Are we set up for being the right long-term board for AAHA? [We’ll be looking at] where our blind spots are and what gaps we have. What do we need and how do we need to think, feel, and act differently as a board? I know that sounds a little mushy, but you know, you've got boards that are eight people, five people, 35 people, and every board has its blind spots no matter what. To take a moment to breathe and be introspective about what they might be and how you might fill those blind spots in the future is critical; every board needs to do that. And that's not something we've tackled purposefully in the last two years.