Leadership Lessons

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Want a stronger, more vibrant GMO? Help your directors learn how to lead.

Reprinted from the September 2017 issue of USDF Connection

By Jennifer M. Miller

With more than 100 USDF affiliated dressage organizations across the country, at this very moment the board of a group-member organization (GMO) could be meeting to discuss important business, from upcoming events to the club’s finances.

More often than not, these all-volunteer boards of directors have more experience training horses and running shows and clinics than spearheading organizations. Some find themselves struggling to manage the inevitable conflicts and to lead effectively. GMOs are becoming increasingly aware that their boards can govern more effectively if they build directors’ leadership and management skills.

Where to start? A quick online search brings up thousands of workshops, webinars, conferences, books, and more, at costs ranging from free to thousands of dollars. In this article, we’ll give you tips that your GMO can use in navigating the leadership- and management-training options.

Start with the USDF’s GMO Resources

One resource that’s both free and aimed specifically at the needs of the GMO is USDF’s GMO Guide. The GMO Guide, which includes an extensive USDF GMO Handbook (online at usdf.org), covers a range of topics including finance, membership, and marketing.

Among the USDF’s 18 committees is the Group Member Organization Committee, whose mission is “growth and development of GMOs to broaden and strengthen the dressage community and increase access to education.” With a member from each of USDF’s nine regions, the GMO Committee is a resource for clubs on training topics, including leadership and management.

“USDF offers more than is often recognized in terms of leadership and management programs,” says GMO Committee chair Cindi Rose Wylie, of Georgetown, MA, the chair of the USDF GMO Committee, a longtime New England Dressage Association member, and a professional dressage rider and trainer. Wylie points out that the USDF maintains an e-mail list for GMO presidents (the “GMO Prezlist”) and a closed Facebook group for GMO Officials, in which club leaders can exchange ideas and advice. (To request to join either or both, send e-mail to gmo@usdf.org.)

One of the best ways to learn more about leading a GMO, says Wylie, is to attend the Adequan®/USDF Annual Convention. She recommends the popular GMO roundtable sessions, at which interested USDF members can participate in small-group discussions on a variety of GMO-related topics, subdivided by club size. Three to four topics typically are on the convention roster; last year, GMO leadership was the focus of a session.

You may well attend industry meetings and similar events as part of your job. If you hold a leadership role in your GMO, consider USDF convention attendance part of your professional-development strategy, says Dr. Lisa Toaldo, of Montague, NJ, the Region 1 GMO Committee representative and a past president of the Eastern States Dressage and Combined Training Association. If your GMO can help foot the bill to offset the costs of attending convention, it will be a wise investment in your club’s future, she says.

And if your GMO can’t afford to send anyone to convention? Consider banding together with other GMO boards in your region to seek leadership training.

A WEALTH OF EXPERIENCE: GMO representatives seek solutions and offer advice at the well-attended roundtable discussions at the USDF convention (Jennifer Bryant photo)

GMO Committee members have much experience with their own GMO boards and have other types of training, as well, which makes them valuable resources to GMO leaders seeking management and other solutions, says Wylie.

“We are always happy to help and support our local GMOs and recognize how important they are to the growth and well-being of the USDF,” she says.

Oregon Dressage Society executive director and Region 6 GMO Committee representative Corinne Tindal Stonier urges club reps to reach out to committee members when an issue or question first arises, so they can help before it’s too late. (They’d love to hear your GMO’s success stories, too, she adds.)

Find a list of the GMO Committee members and their contact info on the USDF website under About/Governance/Councils and Committees.

Resources for Nonprofits

Your GMO, like the USDF, is a nonprofit organization. Take advantage of the variety of local, state, national, and online resources available to nonprofits.

“It’s tough for board members, since you don’t know what you don’t know,” says Rick Cohen, director of communications and operations at the National Council of Nonprofits (councilofnonprofits.org) in Washington, DC. Cohen recommends the online resource Boardsource (boardsource.org), which provides free information and affordable training, plus tips on tax, financial, and fund-raising reporting requirements for nonprofits, which vary from state to state.

Another good source of information, says Stonier, is the bimonthly e-newsletter Blue Avocado (blueavocado.org), published by American Nonprofits, a membership association for US 501(c)(3) organizations.

Look to other nonprofits in your area as potential resources. Perhaps the head of another organization’s board would be willing to speak about his or her leadership experiences at your GMO’s next board meeting. Likewise, if your board has some wisdom to share, offer to do so. Toaldo reached out to a new GMO in her region to share her expertise and to help the board access USDF resources.

If your GMO board has question or a problem, chances are other organizations have grappled with similar issues. That’s why it makes sense to tap into the pool of existing knowledge, says Toaldo.

“Don’t waste your time reinventing the wheel, since there are many resources already available,” she says.

A GMO with sufficient financial resources might consider joining its state nonprofit association (like those affiliated with the National Council of Nonprofits). As a member, the club would be eligible to send board members to relevant workshops, or to engage an expert to facilitate a customized training session. The Oregon Dressage Society, for one, is a member of the Nonprofit Association of Oregon and sent its treasurer to a training session, Stonier says.

Even if joining your state’s nonprofit association isn’t an option, your GMO may be able to send people to workshops by paying the higher nonmember rate. The investment may pay dividends in the long run, says Stonier, who recommends that GMO leaders connect with their states’ nonprofit organizations for help understanding state laws and relevant tax-filing requirements.

Beyond the board, a club might decide to hold a leadership-training session open to all members as a service to the area equine-business community. (See “Serious About Leadership Training” below.) Help offset costs by seeking event sponsorship. Many GMO members are dressage-facility owners and professional instructor/ trainers whose own businesses could benefit from leadership training—and the session could help your club identify potential new board members, as well.

Be Wary of the Friend Trap

One challenge many GMOs face is finding and retaining board members. After all, the role of a board member is more involved than many other volunteer positions and requires a longer and more ongoing commitment.

In this dilemma, GMOs are not alone, says Cohen; many nonprofits struggle to develop and retain their directors.

“Passion, and not necessarily running an organization or reading a 990 [a nonprofit’s IRS tax-return form], is what brings members to a board,” he says. “So although they come together for the love of the sport, it is often a struggle to effectively lead and manage the organization.”

It’s only natural that like-minded people turn to other like-minded people when it’s time to fill a vacant board seat—but if the person isn’t qualified, the decision might not in your GMO’s best interest, says Cohen. It’s common for GMO board members to recruit friends, and serving on a board with your buddies can be fun; but the most effective directors tend to be people who bring relevant professional skills— from accounting and website maintenance to communications and public relations—to their volunteer positions.

Cohen and Toaldo both advise avoiding the “friend trap.” Instead, approach GMO members or related industry contacts who possess valuable skills, even if those people aren’t in your circle of close friends. Cast a wide net, and keep in mind that you may stumble across a promising candidate in any number of ways. Toaldo, who is also a dressage technical delegate, met the ESDCTA’s current treasurer at a seminar on bit-checking and scribing that she conducted at local barns. Toaldo discovered that the person had professional financial experience, and she recruited her for the GMO’s board.

Cohen further suggests that board members ask themselves: “What are the skill sets we need beyond our circle?” Then work your collective networks to find people with those skills who might be interested in supporting your GMO. A candidate might be a parent or other family member, or even a vendor associated with the industry.

Leadership at All Levels

As elected leaders, board members give much of their “time, talent, and treasures” to their organizations and to the sport of dressage, says Toaldo. As a past GMO president herself, she strongly believes that the president plays a key role in educating board members about governance and leadership.

However, all members—not just the board of directors—have a hand in their clubs’ leadership. “Leadership starts and ends with the GMO membership,” Toaldo says. “The ownership of the club belongs to the membership at large.”

Engaged, effective leaders help to create organizations people want to support. By providing resources to train your GMO’s directors and volunteer managers to lead effectively, you may find that members respond by getting more involved.

Serious About Leadership Training

The Oregon Dressage Society (ODS) believes in “empowering leaders on the ground,” according to ODS executive director and Region 6 USDF Group Member Organization Committee representative Corinne Tindal Stonier, of Hillsboro, OR.

The organization puts its money where its mouth is by hosting an annual retreat. Leaders from ODS’s 13 chapters gather in late January to learn about the organization’s history as well as management and event planning.

Stonier, a paid part-timer who’s held her position since 2004, says the ODS launched the retreats sometime in the 1990s to help share information and provide a support structure to train new club leaders, from directors to committee members and event organizers.

“Burnout is an issue,” Stonier says. “People don’t step up if they don’t see something is broken.”

Those who attend the retreat tend to be the club’s most successful leaders, according to Stonier. “New blood” stepped up into more senior roles after last year’s retreat and have remained involved over the year, she says.

Jennifer M. Miller is a freelance writer based in Albany, NY, with almost two decades of professional marketing and communications experience.

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