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Why good executives get fired.

About three years ago, we began to observe two significant and disturbing trends. First, a number of association executives commonly accepted as successful, and in many cases officially recognized by their colleagues as models for the profession, were getting fired. At the same time, we noted that a number of associations, particularly large trade groups, were increasingly turning to their own subject experts for leadership, rather than hiring from the association management profession. It occurred to us that it would be important to find out why.

The conclusions we draw in this article are based on ongoing research for the ASAE Foundation.(*) This research project seeks to identify the competencies executives will require in the 21st century, based on more than 600 case studies in the client files of our consulting practice. This research relies not only on opinion survey work but also upon expert observations about the facts of real situations. That perspective is important because while you may not like what you read, you cannot easily dismiss its truth.

Key principles

To understand the dynamics at work when good executives get fired, it is critical to view those dynamics in context. The first contextual principle is "what is perceived to be, is." The individuals with whom an executive interacts--whether subordinates, colleagues, or superiors--will make judgments and decisions and form opinions primarily on what they perceive to be the case. The important point here for association executives is that behavior, no matter how crazy, has a logical basis.

The association executive's measure of success depends almost entirely upon how other people perceive him or her. Sometimes those perceptions will not be based in fact. That doesn't matter.

Judgment depends entirely upon the information available, and the two primary sources of available information within an association are 1) personal experiences and 2) information gathered from other individuals whose judgment is trusted or with whom behavioral or political coalitions have been formed.

The second contextual principle is that in the absence of information based on the truth, "activists" and "agitators"--well-meaning or not--develop assumptions that explain what they believe they are seeing. That means decision makers may be making decisions based on other people's perceptions, which may be founded on inaccurate, out-of-date, or irrelevant information or on assumptions constructed in the absence of information. But it doesn't matter, because "what is perceived, is."

The symptoms

An association in which these situations are likely to lead to real trouble exhibits three observable symptoms. The symptoms apply in all types of organizations, regardless of the gender of the executive, the size of the group, its location, or the nature of its business lines.

1. The leadership has not reached explicit consensus about what constitutes success. The absence of a clear definition of success creates the opportunity for a good executive to get fired. For example, leadership might define success as better serving the existing membership, while the executive may feel aggressively increasing membership should be the primary measure of success. Absent agreement on what constitutes achievement, other things like management style, personality traits, or loyalty to an influential member with bad ideas or a personal agenda will be used to judge whether the executive is performing effectively.

2. Certain internal and external conditions promote dissatisfaction with performance or dismissal. The external conditions include a membership functioning in a business environment that is already in chaos, as has been the case in the financial industry; where chaos is expected in the foreseeable future, as in the medical community, which faces the impact of health care delivery changes; or where an unpredictable future is creating extraordinary anxiety for a significant portion of the membership, as in information professions, where personal expertise may be replaced by smart computer software.

Members are extremely anxious because they have no sense of their own future. That lack of agreement about what the future holds invites internal squabbling at all organizational levels about how to best prepare for the unknown. Continual confrontation and conflict within the organization results in political and personal posturing.

The organization's energy tends to be internally directed toward judgments about politics and personality and less externally directed to executing programs and policies in the best interests of members. This exacerbates anxiety, because members feel both their own world and that of their organization are spinning out of control.

3. Lack of trust exists. When we asked the chief staff executives what happened, they'd say, "There was a loss of trust." Chief elected officers said the same thing. Loss of trust becomes the code--the comfortable label. This third symptom, then, is often the side effect of either or both of the first two symptoms.

Common causes

We've observed what we believe are four causes that contribute to creating the symptoms outlined above. The first is an executive who functions knowledgeably but behaves ineffectively.

We commonly define a good executive as 1) having a content knowledge of all the appropriate job responsibilities of an executive; 2) having a track record of professional activity within the association community; and 3) having sufficient professional association experience to be chief staff officer or at the senior staff level. These characteristics tend to earn the executive recognition within the association management community. Historically, they are the combination of behaviors that have been acknowledged and rewarded.

But when it comes time to apply their knowledge, they can't do it. Their intellectual judgment about what to do in a given situation may be correct, but how they go about executing it is inappropriate for the situation.

On a simplistic level, it is the executive who knows when it is appropriate to disagree with his or her board chair on a significant issue but who doesn't know when it is inappropriate to have the disagreement in public or how to broach the issue with behaviors that promote an accepting attitude rather than a defensive display of angry authority. A short series of such behavioral dissonance in a visible situation is often the first moment of truth that leads to a decision to dismiss.

Often, these practitioners have understood, but have been unable to execute, the behaviors that bring success in the increasingly critical areas of managing information and relationships. What counts most? Interpersonal skills, consensus building, group process competencies, negotiation, ability to employ a variety of technologies, and leadership know-how. (Research being done for the ASAE Foundation evolves from the insight that certain specific competencies in managing knowledge and managing relationships will be primary attributes necessary for association management in the 21st century.)

Keep in mind that a good executive can discuss eloquently what is involved in these skill areas. But based on our observations, he or she is often unable to effectively execute the behavior.

A second common cause is an executive who doesn't appear to understand the difference between manipulation and leadership. What is the difference? In simple terms, if people would not be as supportive if they knew the whole truth or your real intent, you are manipulating. If you are using information to create awareness, build consensus on outcome and strategies, and motivate actions, you are leading. We observed executives who honestly believed they were leading but upon further examination were clearly engaged in manipulation.

This understanding creates a simple test you can self-administer. Ask yourself: "If my members knew all that I know about this, would they feel the way I'm asking them to feel? If my members knew what I really intend to do here, would they be as supportive?"

The third common cause is the executive who appears to be more concerned with his or her role as an executive and the nature of the job than with doing a good job for members. These are people whose self-esteem seems to depend too much on how their peers and others view them. And since they view their own community primarily as the community of association professionals, instead of as the group of individuals who employ them, they make judgments based upon the expected reactions of their professional colleagues as opposed to the anticipated reactions of their members.

As an example, this mindset might influence an executive to spend significant time in lobbying association causes because his or her peers value it, even though influencing public policy is purposefully not a part of the association's mission. It doesn't matter if there is no real conflict of interest. The problem is that the executive is visibly spending time on something members don't value or may even reject as not worthy.

The implications of this finding for the association management profession's programs of recognition are significant. We tend to reward each other for establishing mechanisms that we have learned are important elements of any good association.

We sometimes make our judgments about appropriateness premised upon what may earn our colleagues' respect, rather than what is needed to accomplish outcomes for our members. Fired executives were perceived as having compromised action for their association to their own career development. Again, it doesn't matter if this is, indeed, the truth. Our investigation shows that if key leaders perceive it to be the case, it might as well have been.

To remedy this situation, we must continually reexamine what constitutes grounds for professional recognition. We also have to do a better job--at the professional, organizational, and personal levels--of integrating what our profession values with what the members of our associations value.

The fourth common cause is the executive who tries to move the association beyond what its members want or need it to be. Often focus is shifted from the members' needs to the organizational size, initiative, or sophistication that is preferred by the executive based upon peer perceptions. The most cost-effective benefit for members is perceived to have been sacrificed for professional reputation and status. For instance, it is not unusual to see a much larger association infrastructure than is needed to serve the membership, in part because traditional appraisal and compensation programs reward executives both financially and psychically on the size and scope of their association.

These are not behaviors exhibited by evil people or malevolent conspirators. They are realities that catch up to you when you're not looking. They are observable behaviors perceived by member leaders as manifestations of the absence of service values.

By the time the relationship reaches this point, our research suggests a turnaround is virtually impossible. The collaboration and cooperation needed to do so usually necessitates a partnership with individuals who have already made up their minds.

Common explanations

To further exacerbate the situation, we saw similar explanations offered by executives exhibiting these behaviors. Their common descriptions of what, in fact, the problem really was tellingly similar among newly "between assignments" executives. The first explanation we documented was that "something is really very wrong with the governance process" or "new models are needed so that association executives can function effectively" or "I was victimized by a decision-making process that doesn't fit today's realities." The second explanation we recorded was that "it's hard to get competent volunteer leaders" or "elected leaders must be taught to value the profession of association management." That quickly translated to "if only they appreciated the talent that I really bring."

These may, in fact, be accurate descriptions of reality. But that isn't the point. When they are employed in these situations, they tend to be employed as rationalizations, not as explanations.

Contributing conditions

Our research suggests that, in addition to the common symptoms of lack of consensus, confusion, and resulting loss of trust, three contributing conditions promote dissatisfaction and dismissal. These conditions have one thing in common: All three describe associations that do not maintain clear consensus on what constitutes success.

This is significant because in the absence of such clarity, employing variables unrelated to actual achievements becomes not only tempting but necessary. After all, performance has to be judged on the basis of something. If the association hasn't been clear about what outcomes it wants, what is often used for appraisal is comfort with the style the executive exhibits, the role he or she appears to have chosen, or perceptions of personal loyalty to the membership powers of the moment.

The first condition is that the organization's energy tends to be directed toward issues of internal power and politics rather than to external issues of program and policy. Associations can choose how they expend their limited energies. If they choose to allocate it to issues that have little meaning to the membership, but significant meaning to a small leadership oligarchy, the probability of a good executive eventually getting fired increases dramatically.

The second condition promoting dismissal is the lack of transactional partnership among the people and groups with power. This type of partnership is characterized by common expectations, cooperative planning, good communication and information, cooperative evaluation of organizational progress, and common understandings.

Organizations that don't operate in this fashion are characterized by hierarchy and turf protection rather than collaboration. People are more concerned with maintaining boundaries and preserving power and prerogative than with collaboration to accomplish clearly defined common and desirable ends.

Such organizations also appear to be characterized by relationships that are dependent rather than interdependent. The organization almost always tends to be personality driven, rather than driven by market research and stated outcomes. It is seldom supported by systematic approaches for decision making and resource allocation. These associations are often historic bastions of the "great man/woman" theory.

Two things happen in personality-driven groups. First, leadership focuses its sights on things that can be done during the period of time when the personality is in place, rather than focusing on those things of real importance to members that require more time to complete. This lowers their gaze as a service provider or leader. Secondly, at the same time, the emphasis on political visibility is raised. Decisions about the program of work are made not on the basis of significance of the contribution but on the basis of how little risk is involved with the smallest amount of effort to accomplish the biggest thing that can be seen by the greatest number of people.

The third condition is absence or atrophy of systematic communication channels. In associations, information is our currency. It is both how we lead and the essence of our primary business lines.

In the organizations we studied, three things happened. First, communication channels were not functioning or were poorly functioning, usually as a result of underinvestment. (Where there is no transactional partnership, there is no need to make sure everyone stays informed. All the executive needs to do is make sure the powerful individuals whose behavior he or she wishes to influence know what's going on.)

Second was a pro forma use of those communication channels. Discussions of superficial issues or outright avoidance was the rule. The right kinds of things got discussed in meetings but not in the right way.

For example, if a board's agenda contains a public policy item, the focus of discussion is on who will present the testimony, not on the statement's content. Or in a discussion of the year's education program, only the promotion, location, and schedule are discussed, rather than identification of what member needs are being met or how the program portfolio contributes to the overall organizational vision and strategy. Pro forma use of communication allows small power groups to control the real decision; the board is left to rubber-stamp or micro-edit the actions of others.

The third thing that happened was avoidance of legitimate opposition or end runs. Side negotiations and discussions were the norm. The important information was not put through systematic communication channels.

Creating a fishbowl

Both governance and leadership involve making choices in areas where there are seldom clear-cut, either--or choices. Rather, balanced positions must be chosen on a continuum of choices. The inability of an executive to recognize the implications of those choices and guide governance through them often created a fishbowl with the executive's intellectual, communication, and behavioral competencies on display.

This creates significant implications for the expected role of the executive. One dilemma involved how an association would operate on a range from staff driven to member driven. Our research suggests that, as a profession, we may have oversimplified the choices and are misstating what each of the stages on this continuum really means.

We are not aware of an association where a good executive was fired when the organization was, in fact, moving toward being market directed. Why? Probably because the infrastructure required to operate in that manner tends to prevent the problems we outlined earlier. The implication, then, is that in converting to a market-directed perspective, we may be engaging in what may be the most successful self-defense executives can employ.

A second and related significant dilemma is a failure of elected leadership and staff to discuss and reach agreement on the role the executive is expected to play within the organization. This is not a discussion of job responsibilities, job titles, or objectives. It is an agreement within the leadership partnership about the kind of contribution the executive will make. Our research shows that where there was a failure to either formally or informally address this issue, the critical causes continued to expand.

Defining success

In the organizations we studied, how three common issues were handled often made the difference between executives' success and failure. All three issues relate to the clarification and development of consensus of what constitutes success.

First is a discussion of whether the organization would use process or outcomes as the basis for measuring success. If it decided that success constituted following an agreed-upon plan, then it was using process as the measurement. But if the organization clearly articulated the benefits it sought to achieve for its members--and did so in the goals for its long-range plan, the objectives articulated in the business plan for each program, and in the performance appraisal process for each staff member--it was using outcomes as the measure. We found that where the measurement system focused on process rather than outcomes, there was no significant contribution to helping define achievements that would benefit members.

Second, we also found a major issue related to segmented needs. The primary concern was which segment's needs would, in fact, serve as the basis for articulating the outcomes to be pursued. In successful organizations, a clear needs-assessment process, with results honestly communicated through healthy channels, created a common understanding of the decision, if not agreement with it. There was clarity about the membership focus of the organization and tremendous sensitivity to the needs of members who were active participants.

The third issue was the health of consensus-building systems. "Unhealthy" organizations had either no consensus-building systems or ones that were significantly atrophied. We could not identify a single instance in which termination occurred where there was a healthy consensus-building process in place.

What are the elements in these healthy systems?

* A systematic needs-assessment process that promotes agreement on the needs, wants, and expectations of the members.

* A strategic planning process that operates continually at all levels of the organization; invites frequent review and adjustment; and is constantly informed by rational information about member needs, strategic position of the association, and evolving dynamics of the marketplace.

* A deliberative policy process that involves a series of decision steps informed by the perspective of staff and members that promotes rational decisions.

The importance of the deliberative planning and policy process informed by committees, task forces, and staff expertise cannot be overemphasized. It tends to produce decisions that are not just acceptable but are right. It also tends to produce confidence in the decisions themselves on the part of members. Even when members disagree with the judgments made, they have faith that the judgment is credible and based on rational information. The judgment is deemed legitimate.

Our research also uncovered a relatively new notion: the need for marketing intangible issues. We believe this is becoming an important additional tool in consensus-building systems.

In most successful associations, a considerable amount of purposeful attention was paid to marketing judgments about position, direction, policy, or priorities directly to the membership themselves. We're not only talking about the selling side of marketing but also about matching product to real customer needs. For instance, when an organization had a strategic plan that called for significant change, leadership employed the marketing of intangible issues to enhance members' understanding about the benefits of the new programs or services developed on their behalf.

Prevention strategies

We believe the research suggests four key prevention strategies that good executives can use. First, confront and clarify expectations regularly and routinely. That includes expectations about role, about where on the continuum of staff driven to member driven the organization wants to be, and about what benefits will accrue to which member population. The days when a smile and an arm around the back at a nice cocktail party were enough to maintain comfort with your management of operations are gone.

Second, focus time, communication, and resources on responsive outcomes for members. Begin and end any discussion with the simple question: What will the results be for our members? If you can't answer the question, you probably haven't finished the discussion. If you haven't answered the question in a satisfactory way, then you probably want to reassess what you are preparing to do.

Third, continually revitalize your consensus-building mechanisms. Make sure you have in place, employ, and constantly monitor a strategic planning process. Build it into every meeting of the board and make sure every committee touches it.

Make sure that you, as a staff executive, constantly draw attention to the most significant outcomes you are trying to achieve on members' behalf. Ensure that your needs-assessment process builds a common data base that helps determine not only your members' opinions but what is causing those opinions.

Define your policy process before you set policy. If you do not maintain the process, individuals who disagree with a decision will attack the process by which the decision was made, rather than have to argue against the decision itself. Be prepared to market intangibles when you unveil a public policy position or significant repositioning of power, norms, or values.

Fourth, understand and prepare for the decision-making dilemmas you will undoubtedly confront. Knowing how to guide your organization through potentially divisive decisions will help you earn the credibility, trust, and respect of today's diverse membership.

Our research convincingly suggests that if these four key prevention strategies become guidelines that govern your behavior as an executive, it is much less likely that you will ever become a future case study of a "failed" exec.

* Tecker and Marybeth Fidler, a senior partner in Tecker Consultants, are writing a book for the ASAE Foundation with a working title of Why Good Execs Get Fired that will be available through ASAE Publications in 1993.

Glenn Tecker is president and chief executive officer of Tecker Consultants, Trenton, New Jersey. Cate Bower, CAE, is a senior partner in Tecker Consultants and president of Cate Bower Communications, Alexandria, Virginia.

Understanding the Staff-Driven--Member-Driven Continuum

From the perspective of a member:

* Staff driven means that staff is making decisions on the basis of what's in the staff's best interests.

* Member driven means that a small oligarchy of powerful and influential members are making decisions on the basis of what's best for that small oligarchy.

* Staff directed means that staff is making decisions on the basis of what staff thinks the members really need, which may or may not be cogent with what members say they want.

* Need driven means that the small oligarchy is making decisions about what they think the members want. (Thus far, the only difference between the ends of the spectrum is whose opinion the judgment is premised upon.)

* Product driven means that the members perceive the organization makes the decisions about what it will do tomorrow, either on the basis of what it did yesterday or on the effect of the decision on income, which converts to compensation and size of program.

* Member responsive means that the members perceive the organization's decisions are still directed by an oligarchy, but an oligarchy of members sometimes functioning in consultation with staff who are making judgments based on some defensible data descriptive of what members needs and wants are really like.

* Market directed seems to be the point where the organization agrees that who makes the decision is not nearly as important as the quality of the decision that is made. Qualitative information from members about their wants, needs, expectations, and preferences is integrated with expert information about the evolving dynamics of their work environment.

Decision Continuums

As an association executive, you will undoubtedly be called upon to guide your organization through various decision-making dilemmas. Avoid the tendency to view them as either-or situations. The executive who will be considered competent will be the executive who helped his or her association find its comfort point on the following decision-making continuums:

* Order versus justice: establishing time and other requirements to get the job done versus the value of getting sufficient numbers of people involved in an effort to ensure understanding.

* Hierarchy versus networks: organizing authority linearly for accountability versus capturing a combination of expertise and experience to provide a solution for a particular problem.

* Authority versus consensus: making a unilateral decision versus taking the time to reach widespread agreement.

* Rational versus perceptual: relying on information versus intuition.

* Process versus outcomes: defining how we do something versus what we want to achieve.

Symposium Offers Insights

To build an even stronger relationship with your chief elected officer, consider attending ASAE's popular education program Symposium for Chief Elected Officers and Chief Staff Executives.

Designed to help you develop a strong team effort in advancing the interests of your association, the seminar is held around the country. Here are some key dates:

* January 14-15, Washington, D.C.;

* February 1-2, San Francisco;

* March 27-28, Orlando, Florida;

* April 19-20, Chicago;

* May 6-7, Scottsdale, Arizona; and

* June 10-11: Washington, D.C.

To register or for more information, contact ASAE Executive Education, The ASAE Building, 1575 Eye St., N.W., Washington, DC 20005-1168; (202) 626-2725; TDD/TT (202) 626-2803.
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.

Article Details
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Author:Bower, Cate
Publication:Association Management
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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