CEO effectiveness & volunteer boards

I was recently invited to share one piece of advice from what I have learned in my years as an association chief staff officer on effective partnership with volunteer leaders, for a book soon to be published by ASAE.  After giving  some thought to the matter, for me it came down to what JimiStock_puzzel Collins calls Level 5 leadership: “the paradoxical blend of personal humility and [fierce] professional will.” You need to be able to take your own ego-gratification out of the equation when assessing the association’s strategic needs, but also refuse to make allowances for any limitations that might be present on your board by compromising on the level of leadership their role demands from them. You need to be authentic in giving the board credit for association success and in truly owning any board failure as your own. And never, never, never, letting a setback cause you to doubt yourself or become tentative and risk averse. Take the hit, learn what you can from it, turn the page, and move on. In doing so, you become not only something of a safety net for the board, making it less risky for them to take bold action. You also model the behavior that will enable them to be effective in their own leadership roles.

The extent (and limits) of a board’s authority

The rich “are different than you and me,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously observed.  (“Yes, they have more money,” Ernest Hemingway is apocryphally reported to have cynically added.)

In the same vein, non-profit boards are different from corporate boards.  They have less latitude to lead.  Even when they have the clear legal authority and are acting entirely consistently with their duties and obligations, they sometimes lack the power to actually execute their decisions.

These thoughts have run through my mind these past days, as I followed the drama over the firing and re-hiring of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan. As an alum of the University, I care about what occurred, but I don’t pretend to have any inside knowledge or unique insight into the Board of Visitor’s actions. But observing the process I couldn’t help but recognize something that is a fact of everyday life for every association executive working with his or her volunteer board.

I don’t know, but it is very possible that the UVa Board of Visitors was objectively correct and perhaps even obligated by their duty to serve the best interests of The University to take the action they did in forcing Sullivan’s resignation.  Perhaps she was failing to perform her duties in a satisfactory fashion, or failing to act in a manner consistent with the direction set by the duly authorized board.  If that were the case, the board’s action was not only legally correct, but the only responsible one for them to take.  On the other hand, perhaps it was a political or personality thing, which would make the decision more questionable.

But it really doesn’t matter.  Where a for-profit corporation’s board can take an action and implement it with little need to explain or justify itself, a non-profit board faces thousands of stakeholders who feel they have a right to be fully informed if not directly involved in every decision “their” association/institution’s leaders take, and who are not slow to exert what they perceive to be their right of veto.

Like I said, I don’t know how valid or justified the UVa Board of Visitor’s initial action dismissing their “CEO” was.  But thirty-plus years in the association business has taught me that a board needs more than just the legal authority to take action … it needs to get buy-in from enough of its constituency to make the decision stick, and the UVa Board of Visitors clearly failed in this regard.

Having led trade associations, whose boards are made up of individuals accustomed to serving on corporate boards, this can be a particularly hard lesson for association board members to learn.  They sometimes fail to appreciate the difference in governance realities between their own company’s board and the association’s.  I can easily imagine the surprise and genuine confusion of members of the UVa board (from such companies as Morgan Stanley and Google) to the reaction of faculty and students.  “They don’t have all the information we do … why do they think they know better than those of us with all the facts and data in front of us?” Or more angrily, “What gives them the right to usurp the authority we were elected/appointed to exercise as a board?”

The lesson to be learned, is that in the not-for-profit world, position power, legal authority, even being right are insufficient.  Leaders and boards need credibility and stature and trust sufficient to bring those they lead along with them.  Or they face embarrassing failures.

Just ask UVa’s Board of Visitors.

Bringing the next generation into governance

When I ask association leaders (both volunteers and staff professionals) what their biggest long-term governance challenge is, the most frequent answer I hear back is the challenge of bringing the next generation of leaders on board.

“Young people don’t volunteer the way we used to.”

“They don’t have the time to devote to volunteering that we did.”

“Their needs and expectations are different than ours were when we came up through the ranks.”.

Each of those statements is probably true enough, although every one of them would do better for some deeper inquiry. When discussing generational issues, oversimplifications and broad generalizations  appear to be the norm, and can do more damage than good.

But the underlying concern of current leaders about future leaders is real, serious and important:

“Who will come after us and ensure the association continues to fulfill its mission?”

And, “How can we engage the younger generation, particularly in the area of governance?”

Serious, selfless and leaderly intentions.  I don’t for a moment doubt the sincerity.

But as I listen to the discussion that follows, there is one question that persistently occurs to me:  exactly who or what are we trying to reform?  

When current boards discuss this issue, do we actually focus on changing the governance system and culture to make them more likely to interest, engage, excite and be rewarding for the next generation of leaders?

More often, it seems to me, what actually happens is the established board, made up of more seasoned and experienced individuals,  is looking for ways to get the next generation to change, not the system.  They struggle to find ways to make the youngsters  more fully understand and appreciate the current governance system just the way it is.  In short, it’s all about trying to make the next generation leader more like we are ourselves, so that they will want to step into the leadership system and culture just as they are.

Are we trying to remake the next generation of leaders in our own image or are we trying to establish a governance model that will be sustainable and serve the membership into the future?  Are we willing to design a governance  model and culture to suit the needs and preferences of the next generation, even if the result is a system we would find uncomfortable ourselves?

Consensus is not a dirty word

At a GWSAE Speakers Series event a number of years ago, Margaret Thatcher described consensus as the opposite of leadership.  She used words to the effect that consensus is an abdication of leadership obligations; true leaders take you somewhere the group otherwise would never go.

Recently, on ASAE’s CEO network listserv, a rather energetic discussion on consensus also emerged.   One of that dialogue’s most forceful and articulate participants took an equally hardline against consensus, dismissing it as just a synonym for unanimity.  Of course it’s nice when a decision is unanimous, but how often does that happen? In the real world, the majority rules and once a decision is made it is the board’s duty to support the outcome and the staff’s duty to do their jobs and make it so.

Both Lady Thatcher and that association CEO were right, to a point.  The need to “build consensus” can be a too convenient excuse to avoid making hard but necessary decisions.  Or a tactic used by the minority to mire the association down in an endless process of unproductive delay.  Or the well-intentioned but nonetheless unrealistic and naïve effort to achieve an impossible unanimity.  Regardless of the cause, it can leave the association locked in inactivity.

But I felt the need to defend the concept of consensus, and I hope not just because “consensus-builder” is a personal leadership characteristic mentioned frequently in my performance reviews over the years!

Yes, consensus can be used as an excuse for not meeting the unpleasant duties of personal and organizational leadership, and yes it can become the perfect (but impossible) ideal that is the enemy of the good (but achievable) outcome and lead an organization into a paralysis of irrelevance.

But I have too often observed boards where, although every action is unanimous (or nearly unanimous), the absence of underlying consensus reveals an organization in a state of total dysfunction and locked in constant and unproductive conflict.

Conversely, I have viewed boards where the debate over every agenda item is vigorous (sometimes even heated), and the decisive votes are often close, but the underlying consensus on the governing values, principles and direction of the association is so strong that it results in a prevailing organizational and leadership culture that is robust, positive and healthy.

So my bottom line is that consensus is different from vote count.  Voting is just the raw application of numerical power.  Of course votes are binding, but ignore consensus at your peril.  And don’t make the mistake of assuming you have consensus just because you have the votes.

That would be like the politician who assumes and starts acting like the election results have given him or her a mandate for action (particularly for change) that goes much further than it actually does.  The minute they get to Congress and start “doing what the people sent me here to do,” the rug gets yanked out from underneath them.  That landslide vote in the last election does not make what awaits them at the end of their equally sudden fall any less shattering an experience.

The real world of politics (whether in government or associations) is a world where divisions will persist.  Differences that are often deep and irreconcilable.  They cannot be eliminated; they can only be bridged. The leader who understands the extent, and even more importantly, the limits of the existing consensus is in a position to take the association where it needs to go but otherwise would never get to, and equips him or her with the insight needed to take it there.

The leader who knows how to maximize or even expand the scope of consensus is in a position to take the association to new heights.  Consensus isn’t reductive.  It is the key to unlocking the organization’s full potential.