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Beware the toxic organization.

Warning signs in 10 areas point the way.

Two chief staff executives who took the top jobs at established associations are now "at liberty," through no fault of their own. They have discovered, perhaps too late, the growing incidence of the phenomenon I call the "toxic" association.

Yes, there are associations so poisonous that candidates should avoid them, as chief executives there are almost always assured of failure and short tenure.

How can you avoid the toxic association? By watching for warning signs, asking questions, and doing your homework.

Ten areas to watch

1. Executive turnover. The most obvious warning sign is excessive turnover in the chief executive officer position. A well-known national association is working on its fourth CEO in six years. Something is dreadfully wrong, and in this case, it is a board of directors with no desire to commit to the kind of working relationship required to retain a competent association CEO. Research and know the history of CEO employment before you go to the interview. Ask why a replacement is being sought.

2. Planning. Look closely at any association that has no strategic plan or planning process that focuses time and money resources. Ask who is involved with the planning process and when the last planning session took place. Ask to see the planning documents, and be skeptical of a selection committee chair who says, "Our industry is so fast-moving that we just don't have time to do planning for the association." Ask about future plans and how top leadership envisions the future. Are the top leaders reasonably optimistic? What do they believe the outlook is for the association?

3. Staff issues. Listen to what members and leaders say about staff - not only the departing CEO but other staff as well. Do you sense that staff are respected, valued partners or unknowns bearing the brunt of member dissatisfaction? Ask about staff who are most helpful and valued. Is turnover an obvious problem, and how do members feel about present staff morale? If feasible, visit the association offices. Even a brief, after-hours visit will tell you something about how the association regards its staff.

4. Office appearance. Does the office seem well-organized, orderly, clean, and well-equipped? Is the place a disorganized mess, with evidence of overcrowding? Again, a visit can be informative. If it is not possible to visit, ask members about the office space and equipment.

5. Membership trends. Association leaders should know if membership is increasing, decreasing, or holding steady. They should also have some idea why. Do research to determine whether the field is growing or contracting, and ask about market penetration. What share does the association have of the potential market? Beware of an association with leaders who do not have some reasonable, current membership trends to share.

6. Finance. Look carefully at financial statements. If you need help interpreting them, get it from a certified public accountant who can flag potential problems. For example, a friend accepted a job as association CEO, only to find that the organization did not have money to pay his salary. Worse, the board of directors did not know what assets were available to the association.

In another case, a candidate accepted the CEO position without understanding that the bulk of the organization's money was controlled by a separate foundation, operated by a distant board and a hostile executive. Lack of up-to-date audits, reviews, or other financial data is a clear warning sign.

7. Member Interest. Are there signs of lack of member interest and involvement? Ask about turnover on the governing board and about recent resignations by officers, directors, or key committee people. Is the nominating committee having difficulty attracting good candidates?

Lack of committed member participation in major association activities is also a troubling sign. Ask about attendance at recent meetings, educational programs, and other principal association projects.

8. Your predecessor. If your predecessor will continue to he employed by the association, learn the terms and expectations of this arrangement. One of our friends was done in by the previous association CEO, who couldn't stand the improved results that the new executive was creating.

9. Membership contact. As your conversations continue, it is important to meet as many of the association's members as possible. Remember that you will work longer for members who are not in officer spots than with the current leadership, if you have successful tenure. Be wary of an employment offer if you have met only the members of the selection committee. They are often extraordinary members on their best behavior. Meeting the rest of the official family and some rank-and-file members will broaden your perspective on members' perceptions, wants, and needs.

10. Employment contract. Beware of any association that does not plan to have an employment contract with the CEO. You must insist on a written agreement that spells out relationships, board and CEO expectations, evaluation criteria, compensation and benefit packages, termination procedure, and other details. Run, do not walk, away from an association that isn't serious enough to commit itself by contract to a relationship to which you give yourself without reservation.

Making your decision

If you find evidence of toxicity based on your assessment of the warning signs and answers to your research and questions, the next step is to determine if you still can be an effective executive with the association. To do so, prepare a list outlining your goals and detailing where they may conflict with toxic elements of the organization. Then, honestly assess the odds of overcoming these barriers to success.

Recognize that all of your talent and ability - applied in the most intelligent fashion, even with many extra hours of overtime - may not be enough to overcome the toxic association, where it is easier for the voluntary leadership to terminate the top staff person than to realistically attack the challenges at hand.

Of course, some toxic associations respond to turnaround efforts, and occasionally a new CEO can produce a miracle cure. Just be aware of those associations that have conditions that make change and improvement unlikely.

Wilford A. Butler, CAE, is president and CEO of Butler Consulting Group International, Indianapolis.
COPYRIGHT 1996 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Butler, Wilford A.
Publication:Association Management
Date:Aug 1, 1996
Previous Article:Getting selected.
Next Article:Managing the matrix.

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