Clarifying Expectations for Members of an Economic Development Advisory Group

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CED Guest Author

Vaughn Mamlin Upshaw is a Lecturer in Public Administration and Governance at the UNC School of Government.

In a previous post, I offered seven strategies for creating a successful economic development advisory board. This post continues that discussion by expanding on the importance of clarifying expectations with board members.

Most of us are quick to blame decision-makers when they fail to meet our expectations.  Often, the failure is a result of not having been clear about what was expected.  Clarifying expectations early in a relationship is an important exercise which helps all parties better understand what they need from others and what others need from them.

What happens when expectations are unclear?  In one county, the economic development advisory board began operating in a manner that was inconsistent with the goals of the county commissioners and the group became ineffective. Commissioners were frustrated with the advisory committee, but uncertain what to do to change the group’s practices.  Professionals responsible for supporting the advisory board were torn between supporting the advisory board’s agenda because it conflicted with board of commissioners’ policies.  Eventually, the county commissioners and professional staff agreed the best thing to do would be to dissolve the economic development advisory board and start from scratch. When the commissioners established a new advisory board, the county commissioners explained the purpose of the advisory board and what kind of feedback they wanted from the new advisory board members.  They also spelled out how the advisory board would work with county staff, and what role the advisory board would have in helping shape the county’s economic development policies. Making expectations explicit at the outset goes a long way to helping everyone understand what others need and how they need it.

Clarifying expectations can be a positive experience, especially if it occurs early before relationships are frayed.  Ideally, a conversation about expectations is scheduled shortly after new advisory board members are appointed or elected to an economic development commission. This is a time when people are learning their roles and responsibilities and a discussion of expectations is a natural part of the conversation.

Why do you need to discuss expectations if advisory boards and commissions have bylaws?  Bylaws and policies are useful because they describe what is required for success and can help individuals distinguish between their responsibilities and those of other boards.  But typically these documents fail to spell out how group members set and clarify expectations for each other and how they will work cooperatively.  Here are a few tips for clarifying expectations for members of your economic development board.

  1. Start early. Soon after anyone joins the board it is useful to cover the board members’ job responsibilities and board member expectations.  New board member orientations usually review the nuts and bolts of what the economic development is and what the commission does. In addition, a new board member orientation should include a set of expectations for board members, spelling out how members can be successful in their role.
  2. Craft mutual expectations.  Expectations go both ways.  Just as a board member wants to meet expectations of the board, the board also needs to meet expectations of the members.  When working with boards, we typically ask people the following questions:
    1. What do you expect of the board (board chair)?
    2. What do you expect of yourself as member of the board?
    3. What do you think others expect of you as a member of the board (or of board chair)? [1]
    4. Revisit expectations regularly. Expectations change as people and situations change.  When one or more members of an advisory board turn over, the group’s dynamic shifts.  If setting and revisiting expectations is built into a board’s annual calendar, everyone has an opportunity to reflect on what worked, what did not work, and what might be done differently next time.

Most people want to be successful.  Creating a set of clear expectations about how to make your economic development commission or advisory board successful from the outset is a great way to help everyone start off on the right foot.

[1] Roger Schwarz, Anne Davidson, Peg Carlson, Sue McKinney (2005). The Skilled Facilitator Fieldbook: Tips, Tools, and Tested Methods for Consultants, Facilitators, Managers, Trainers, and Coaches (Jossey Bass Business and Management Series)

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