Board Tips: When a CEO Won’t Let Go

Tips for letting go of a CEO who's gotten too comfortable in his role.

Sometimes boards get comfortable, even complacent, with a longtime executive. But if a board knows that a CEO has become a poor fit for the organization but isn’t budging, what then?

Robert Van Hook, FASAE, CAE, of Transition Management Consulting, recalls one situation where a board needed to help a long-tenured association leader find the door. Part of the problem is that as power shifts to a longtime CEO, he or she gathers plenty of supporters that can make change difficult. Van Hook prescribes that strong board leaders recognize their own power and gather the board’s own numbers to present the case to the leader.

“It took four very strong, courageous leaders,” he says. “They had a study commissioned, they had to have secret meetings to talk about it with consultants, even a family therapist to even understand the dynamics of what was going on in the organization. Finally, they said [to the CEO], we think you need to retire.”

That conflict could have been avoided with better communication and recognition that the board ultimately serves the members, not a well-liked leader. “They’re responsible to the organization,” Van Hook says. “They are the stewards of that organization, and they have to do what’s right for the organization.”

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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