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Don't leave the room.

During one of its recent conventions, ASAE showed a videotaped interview with Clifford Clarke, CAE, president emeritus of the Arthritis Foundation, Atlanta. At one point in the interview, the crowd roared with approval.

The interviewer had asked Cliff Clarke what piece of advice he would give to a young association executive. His response: Don't leave the room.

Clarke had hit a nerve. Experienced association executives know that no matter how positive the relationship between the chief staff officer and the volunteer leaders, no matter what degree of mutual trust and admiration exists, it's still best to watch your back.

We've seen articles that discuss the dynamics of this interplay, including theoretical suggestions for improving it. Those include developing an understanding of your elected officers' needs and motivations, setting up clear lines of communication, and spelling out policies and procedures. While these guidelines are valid and helpful, more practical considerations exist in laying the groundwork for a secure, healthy, and productive relationship between volunteer leadership and hired hand. Here are potential pitfalls to avoid to help achieve this relationship.

Pitfall 1: Not being there. The first pitfall on my list is an expansion of the don't-leave-the-room idea: Don't allow your elected leaders to hold meetings without you.

At my former association's fall conference, a well-meaning committee member told me--after the fact--that while I was performing 20 other tasks simultaneously, the officers had assembled for a chat. This impromptu social gathering evolved into a consciousness-raising session. The officers reached conclusions and decisions that directly affected my staff and me.

On another occasion, staff members were dismissed from a telephone conference call at what they thought was the conclusion of the committee's business. After the staff hung tip, members of this influential group continued to talk about the status of the organization and the managerial abilities of the chief executive officer.

"Most volunteers will not confront you if they're considering termination," Bernard F. Whalen states in his article On Being a CEO: Learning the Political Ropes" in the April 1989 issue of Association Management. "They tend to conspire behind your back."

A Chicago colleague of mine agrees. After having been the victim of such a surreptitious discussion, and learning of it later, he said, "I was told that had I walked into the room and announced that I could walk on water, the prevailing sentiment would have been that I probably couldn't swim,"

But Whalen also offers sound advice. "Your contract can prohibit this type of behavior by requiring that you attend all board and executive committee meetings," he says. "If the board members have to deal with you face to face, they will be less likely to engage in a palace coup.

Pitfall 2: Failing to do your home. work. As a new association executive, it's tempting to make changes to show the board and staff that they have a courageous and provocative leader. One acerbic chief executive officer says, "They don't respect you until you've hired or fired somebody."

Failing to do your homework, however, before making rapid and wholesale changes can annoy board members who have pet projects or political ambitions of which you are unaware. When I first arrived at the Illinois Academy of Family Physicians, Schaumburg, I was frustrated by one program that had distinguished itself by simultaneously being more resource-intensive and less valuable to members than any other activity. Some digging revealed that market research conducted prior to the program's inception was suspect, its conclusions specious, and its authors potential suppliers of the service in question.

What I didn't recognize was that many considered the program a cutting-edge solution to a daunting social ill. It also was a program of which a couple of key volunteers were partictilarly proud. I almost didn't survive the board meeting during which I recommended we dissolve the program. Thus, before you blithely suggest that your association adopt or jettison a program or activity, conduct research, prepare supporting documentation, and garner support from influential officers.

Pitfall 3: Working without a contract. Insist on a contract or letter of agreement to clearly delineate your employment terms. A contract is not only necessary,' for you personally, it's also a positive reflection of your self-confidence, judgment, and experience.

One executive director who has been on the job without a contract for more than 10 years, says, "I know I should have some kind of formal agreement. But after all this time, my relationship with my board is almost fraternal. I'm afraid if I walk into a meeting now and tell them I want something on paper, they'll be hurt and hostile."

"A solid contract is a CEO's most important political tool," Whalen states in his article. "You must obtain this going in, because you will have difficulty negotiating or amending one with future boards .... You must demand respect as a professional from the outset."

Pitfall 4: Accepting unusual compensation. Requesting or accepting unusual forms of compensation ultimately infuses an employment relationship with uncertainty at best or resentment at worst. Problems with unusual or creative forms of compensation frequently arise when boards or individuals are looking for nontaxable income opportunities. I was offered office equipment as part of my remuneration after a positive performance evaluation. The association made it clear to me that it would own the equipment. I made it clear to the association that, in that case, it was not part of my personal compensation.

Asking your association to cover the costs of your automobile, club memberships, cellular telephone, or spouse travel can be troublesome. Are you asking for gas money or a leased and insured vehicle? Is the club membership fee a one-time deal, or are the dues paid annually Is your spouse covered for airfare, meals, lodging, and registration fees for the conferences you attend?

These are legitimate negotiating points, but be specific about what they entail to avoid finger-pointing later.

Pitfall 5: Being evaluated by an individual. Make sure your employment agreement spells out how, when, and who evaluates your performance. A judicious and constructive evaluation is considerably better with the aggregate wisdom and experience of a group of leaders than with an individual, who may be the organization's closet loose cannon. Unfortunately, contracts that stipulate annual evaluations conducted solely by the chief elected officer or other official board designee are common. The evaluation process is too important--to you and to the health of the association--to leave it to one individual who comes and goes in a year and may have personal axes to grind.

I fought this battle for two years at my association. The executive committee, which was contractually responsible for my reviews, found it logistically difficult to get six busy physicians together, and to discuss my performance with me face-to-face was, well, kind of icky.

The committee delegated the dirty deed to the president, with whom I had had some personal difficulties. The resulting session was predominantly negative, which did not square with the feedback I had received from other association leaders.

I spoke frankly and privately to other officers, who were surprised and embarrassed. I told them, as diplomatically as I could, that my contract called for an evaluation by the whole executive committee and I would hold them to it. Finally, I developed an evaluation form and a documented process that made my reviews less subjective.

Pitfall 6: Taking on board responsibilities. If your leadership gets the idea that you'll accept any assignments, they'll foist some distasteful items on you. Those official duties most distasteful are also the ones that have the greatest potential for political fallout and public failure.

Responding to complaints about board policies, delivering financial reports to delegates, selling a dues increase, and chairing a member meeting are the responsibilities of the president or other board members. This doesn't mean the chief executive officer shouldn't cooperate. Indeed, he or she is probably preparing background material to support the board's policy or position. But the chief executive officer should not be solely responsible for the results.

I became very uncomfortable when my president-elect, overburdened with personal and professional commitments, asked me to make committee assignments for his upcoming term. This involved placing 150 ambitions, opinionated physicians in positions of varying responsibility, visibility, and political importance--and rejecting others who couldn't be accommodated on committees in which they had expressed interest.

I enlisted the help of other executive committee members, but I still had more input in the nomination process that year than I would have liked. On a positive note, the episode resulted in comprehensive job descriptions for our officers and board members. These job descriptions were written with officers' input, approved by the board, and included in our manual for volunteer leaders.

Pitfall 7: Positioning yourself as chief spokesperson. Although you may not want the thankless assignments mentioned in pitfall 6, you may be tempted to act as guiding light of your association. It is certainly ego gratifying. But this is another role that rightly belongs to elected leaders.

It's important to have someone speak for the profession who practices the profession. e important, perhaps, is the resentment and annoyance board members feel when the spotlight they've worked so hard to reach suddenly shines on someone else, especially when that someone else is paid staff'.

The happiest constituents are those who believe their associations are member driven. This doesn't mean the, association executive is sitting at his or he desk waiting for the next directive from an officer. But the wise association executive works diligently behind the scenes and stays off- the stage.

"It has been said that there are two CEO political styles: foregroud and background," Whalen comments. "The former has high visibility, is very active in events and programming and takes leadership positions. The latter operates by remote control, pushing the right buttons to move the association forward bitt keeping a low profile. Background chief' executive officers generally have longer tenures and security.

Another chief executive officer says iL best: "I always remember that it's their party. I'm simply an invited guest. If I don't conduct myself' appropriately, they'll ask me to leave."

Pitfall 8: Assuming the role of mediator. Boards are made tip of different personalities. Some board members get along better than others. But ill accepting their assignments, all board members agree in principle to represent the association in a distinguished manner, and to bring their talents and abilities to bear for the good of the trade or profession.

You will need to remind some board members of this laudable goal when egos clash and worlds collide. Don't allow yourself to be cast as peacemaker, messenger, or liaison among rival volunteers.

First, politely refuse to render an opinion on the situation. When I received a telephone call from a board member complaining bitterly about a colleague's broken promise of support, I said, "I'm sorry you feel that way, but I'm sure you appreciate my position. I can't comment any further."

Second, urge the warring factions to address each other directly. You can't get into trouble by encouraging honest communication. If the difficulty is still not resolved, introduce an informal arbitrator--another officer or board member. An honest attempt to remain helpful, impartial, and unruffled results in your board members viewing you as a person of integrity who will not get embroiled in political maneuvers.

Pitfall 9: Tolerating staff contracts with the board. I was stunned to hear one of my cohorts say that when he was first hired as his association's chief executive, he discovered that two employees had separate contracts with the board of directors. The staff members reported to the board, not to the executive--although the executive was still responsible for the performance of each of their areas.

The employees had shrewdly requested the contracts in an interim period when there was no staff leadership. The board, under fire from the membership for releasing the chief executive officer from his contract and hesitant to lose any more experienced staff, relented.

I related this story to a second colleague, and imagine my surprise when he confirmed that this situation had existed at his shop when he was first hired by the board.

Contracts formalizing this process suggest tolerance and encouragement. If you're going to be beaten up by a resentful, ambitious manager and a sympathetic board member, you don't have to hold their coats for them while they do it.

Address staff reporting relationships in your interview and during the contract development process. Determine the board's view on your responsibility for hiring, firing, and evaluating staff. State that if you are held accountable for program performance, staff in charge of those programs must be accountable to you. Include this specific reference in your formal agreement.

If you find yourself in a situation in which the problem already exists, let board members know that specific responsibilities logically accompany this relationship. For instance, if staff ultimately report to the board, the board should update staff job descriptions, determine staff salary adjustments, maintain staff files, assess staff education and training needs, and conduct staff performance evaluations. You're happy to perform these tasks, but that means those staff members must report to YOU.

Pitfall 10: Withholding information. Knowledge is power; ignorance is dangerous. The worst course you can follow with new leaders is to withhold information.

Set aside the argument that it is their association, and they are entitled to peruse most of the documentation in the headquarters office. More important, in providing them with minutes, budgets, reports, and correspondence, you are telling them that you recognize their need to contribute. You are also illustrating the value and number of association activities being conducted on their behalf.

Gone are the days when board members breezed into town, rubber-stamped programs, and bolted for the bar. The reason men and women-most of whom already have frenetic schedules and incredible time demands--serve in organizations is because they see them as conduits personal achievement.

Today's volunteer leader is highly competitive. He or she needs to be involved, accomplish goals, orchestrate change, and receive recognition.

Providing information to leaders is the first step toward empowerment. Conversely, what they don't know can hurt you. Get in the way of a hard-charging, idealistic, baby-boomer board member, and you'll be trying to get the Reebok tracks off your face.

An ounce of prevention

The one step to help us avoid these pitfalls is to plan a thorough and professional board orientation program. Accompany training with materials that include the characteristics of a successful board member; job descriptions for staff and volunteers; an organizational chart that depicts all reporting relationships; a compilation of association policies and procedures; and any other pertinent historical information.

Considering the sensitive nature of some of the points discussed here add the need for frank discussion, ask someone outside your association to conduct the session. If a consultant is not feasible, by an exchange with a fellow chief executive officer-you'll work with his or her board, and he or she will work with yours.

In exploring these 10 pitfalls, we risk an Ilth: paranoia. This is stressful and counterproductive. Let's just agree that as risk-oriented, opinionated chief executives, we should be prudent in our approach to working with those who at least in part control our destinies.

Christine Nolen, CAE, formerly executive vice president of the Illinois Academy of Family Physicians, Schaumburg, now lives in Aspen, Colorado, and provides consulting services to nonprofit organizations.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:corporate governance
Author:Nolen, Christine
Publication:Association Management
Date:Sep 1, 1992
Words:2565
Previous Article:Finding boards a better way.
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