Get Ahead of a CEO Transition Crisis

Power at an association tends to drift away from boards. New CEOs following a longtime leader will have to work to restore balance.

Association executives have a bad reputation with the general public. If news of a new association CEO makes it to Page One—OK, page two—it’s usually because a retired congressperson has shifted into the corner office of an association. Here at AssociationsNow.com, there’s no question about the amount of honest day-to-day labor the job involves. But to ordinary citizens the gig can look like a sinecure.

Another thing that helps bolster that sense: Association CEOs tend to stick around longer than their corporate cousins. A steady hand at the wheel isn’t a bad thing—better that than revolving-door leadership at troubled corporations. But long-tenured CEOs speak to one issue that can often use more care and attention at associations: A plan for what to do when the CEO departs.

Good execs keep their boards powerful.

I don’t mean the bus book, though that’s important to have. I mean the strategy that the board and other stakeholders have in place to decide what they need out of their next leader.

In the new issue of Associations Now, I wrote about some of the concerns that arise when a longtime leader leaves. Too often, a lack of planning for a replacement leads to choices that are poor fits for the association. As Robert Van Hook, FASAE, CAE, of Transition Management Consulting told me, “anecdotally, it’s pretty common for [a new] executive following a long-tenured executive not to last so long.”

Why the lack of planning? One systemic problem that Van Hook witnesses with long-term CEOs, he says, is a slow drift of power away from the board and to the executive. If there’s a sense that the ship is running smoothly overall, and the board is disinclined to press on necessary strategic changes for the organization, a rubber-stamp board can slowly emerge. “Good execs keep their boards powerful,” he says. “They empower their boards and keep them engaged. It’s important that the board understand but be engaged and cognizant of their role as overseers and stewards of the organization. The execs need to help them do that.”

The hiring and onboarding process for a new CEO can provide the board with an opportunity to repair that. Unfortunately, too few organizations take advantage of it: According to one recent study, a majority of nonprofit CEOs say their boards are AWOL when it comes to supporting them in their first year on the job.

There are a couple of reasons for that. One, as Van Hook suggests, is that the new-CEO search is simply exhausting: After finishing the process of vetting, interviewing, selecting, and managing the logistical issues that come with a new leader, most people are simply eager to move on. But another is that the business of working with a new leader is hard work in itself.

But as Chris McEntee, FASAE, CAE, CEO of the American Geophysical Union, points out, it’s a worthwhile effort. She arrived at AGU in 2010, following an executive who was in place for 38 years, and she was welcomed by a board that was eager to move forward, but needed direction. “They needed to further define what kind of board they wanted to be,” she said. “They weren’t engaging in forward-looking discussions.”

For her first board meeting, held about a month after she began work at AGU, she brought in a governance consultant. “We spent several hours at that meeting talking about governance,” she says. “How they were going to operate culturally, on meeting agendas, the roles and relationships between them and other parts of the organization and committee structures and staff. That really help them set in a more concrete way how they needed to operate.”

Executives need to do more to challenge their board to think more broadly about strategy, McEntee says. “If you give a board operational work, they’ll do operations work,” she says.

What does your organization do to encourage their boards to think strategically about the CEO’s role, especially during a leadership transition? Share your experiences in the comments.


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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