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Board/CEO Partnership: Foundation of Association Leadership

An association can be no more successful than the combined efforts, abilities and commitment of its Board and CEO. In recent years, strength at the CEO position has become increasingly critical to an association’s success as volunteers are more and more challenged in finding time for service on their association Board. Accordingly, understanding the dynamics and roles of the association Board-CEO Partnership has never been more important.

As everywhere in the economy, the common themes in an association’s operational success will continue to be value and quality as goals, and empowerment and accountability as venues. Moreover, the increasing focus on value and quality has directly impacted association funding models. Members need to see value for specific services and products, and of a quality that meets or surpasses that of private sector competitors. Relying largely on annual dues no longer works.

Indeed, the metric of success for an association has shifted from making certain everyone was ‘feeling good’ to everyone ‘feeling the goods’, squeezing them, in fact, to make certain there is value for the time and money spent with and on an association that might be applied elsewhere. And it is in just this, ensuring an association continues to serve as a key and continuing resource to its members, that strong leadership qualities and instincts are increasingly required in the CEO.

On the volunteer side, much has been made in recent years of Board competencies, i.e., in which ways Board members should be competent. This has arisen in partial response to Boards whose members are chosen largely on geographic or industry/profession sector identification. Such Boards are seen as vulnerable to factionalism as well as being unable to meet the financial, legal, operational, and visioning responsibilities of Board service.

This concern may be misplaced. Most if not all specific skill areas can be staffed or in-sourced. What is most needed from Board members is a fundamental sense of what the organization was founded to do and how its members’ continuing and changing needs can be served and their interests protected and advanced. From this perspective, Board member competencies would include:

• A deep understanding of, and commitment to, the core purpose and value of the industry or profession
• An engaging persona with the skill to communicate with others, as well as the instinct to listen and consider seriously the views of others
• An aptitude for, and an appreciation, of the benefits and limits of the commonality of purpose, intent and impact that associations can offer and provide
• An innate sense of purpose and accountability with the willingness to hold a group to them
• An appreciation of the association’s past actions and achievements, as well as a vision for the industry or profession in future years

These are not competencies in the skill or technical discipline sense so much as they are quality- and value-based abilities. And they are essential to a purposeful Board, no exceptions allowed. It is the representation of these qualities and values by and for which the association was founded, and which it is committed to advance. And it is in this that a Board member must first be responsible.

As for any skill-based competencies a Board member must have, the most important are 1) the Board’s role in the functionality of the association’s success and 2) how a Board works. These are skill areas that can be taught and learned and, when mastered, will lead to an understanding by Board members of the Board’s role in association leadership such that they can constructively participate in its work.

This is not at all to suggest that each Board member must master Roberts Rules of Order. What must be learned and understood, though, is the core relationship between an association’s Board and its CEO, i.e., the Rule of Tiers.

The Rule of Tiers:

  • The Board owns the association, ultimately having created it. However, it is largely viewed by Board members as a Tier II professional responsibility.
  • The CEO does not own the association, even the smallest part of it. However, it will always be, must be, the CEO’s Tier I professional responsibility. In fact, it should be his/her only professional responsibility.

Though unequal in terms of ownership of the organization, to the CEO, the association’s success is paramount. Not only is it her/his primary source of income, it is the platform of his/her professional growth and expression; who she/he is, his/her future. It is in this that a true partnership develops, despite the differences in ownership. It is a partnership in which the CEO is the Board’s principal resource in its decisions on how the association is to operate and be successful. Done right, it is a partnership of mutual interests and support.

As to the capacities and roles of the parties in this partnership, we turn to two definitions of the word authority. On the one hand, ‘authority’ can be defined as the power to command. On the other hand, ‘authority’ can be defined as a firm basis of knowing and for acting. Though the difference in the definitions is substantive, taken together, in an association context, they can combine to give us a useful insight into how the Board and the CEO interact, i.e., The Rule of the Two Authorities.

The Rule of the Two Authorities

Authority Number 1

The Board of Directors has the power to command all aspects of an association’s activities and operations, to include: its by-laws, its activities, its goals and objectives, how it is funded, how its funds are to be spent, who is to serve on the Board, who is to serve as its CEO.

Authority Number 2

The CEO’s role is to be the Board’s authority, its firm basis for knowing and acting, on what an association does and how it can do it, how it can achieve the continuing validation of its purpose and the enhancement of its relevance.In this, the Board is responsible for ensuring the CEO can, in fact, serve as its firm basis for knowing and acting on what an association does and how it can do it. And among the CEO’s responsibilities is advising the Board on the skill areas it must have among/within its membership or otherwise have available to it in order to meet its fiduciary, oversight and visioning responsibilities.

Taken all together, the two rules and the proper meeting of these responsibilities will lead to a positive and productive Board/CEO Dynamic:

The Board/ CEO Dynamic

The CEO engaging and sharing her/his firm basis for knowing and acting in advising the Board on the use of its power to command to ensure the protection and advancement of the interests of the membership and the continuing enhancement of the association’s relevance to its members.

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