A Faster Trip to the Top

At many associations, the path to the presidency can take more than a decade. One association has created an express lane for some of its board presidents.

Wait your turn.

Nobody likes to hear that. My 4-year-old son and a lot of his friends struggle mightily with it, but truth be told, grown-ups aren’t always paragons of patience. If you want to experience this feeling in slow motion, consider what happens at some association boards, where volunteer leaders are expected to climb a long ladder of committee leadership gigs, then rank-and-file board membership, followed by a stint on the executive committee, until finally, at long last, she can become president for a year or two.

This can create all sorts of acting out. The molasses-like transition structure means some boards can be sludgily contented with the status quo. It can also mean that some of the association’s brightest and sharpest members decide they have better things to do with the next decade or so of their careers. Or it can sow so much impatience in a leader that when he finally reaches the top of the mountain, he’s eager to implement something, anything, that resembles progress, even if it’s a bad idea.

(Jamie Notter, in a provocative blog post on boards last week that I’m sure I’ll be revisiting, pointed to these and other flaws in the board structure: “We need organizations to be strategic. We need them to create value. We need them to innovate,” he writes. But too often, he argues, they don’t.)

I spend quite a bit of time helping the presidents get ready to be president.

As an example of one way to address the wait-your-turn problem—and an example of why it’s so hard to address—it’s worth taking a look at how one association has handled it.

Since the late 1990s, the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy has had a two-track path to leading its 14-person board. The more conventional process is lengthy: After three years on the ASGE board, one can rise to secretary- or treasurer-elect for a year, serve as secretary or treasurer for three years, then a year as president-elect, then a two-year presidential term, then a year as past president.

For those scoring at home, that’s 11 years.

“And that’s usually after you’ve been a committee chair for heaven knows how long, or in a leadership position of some kind,” says ASGE CEO Patricia Blake, FASAE, CAE.

So ASGE has a second path to leadership. Every third year, it elects what it has called a “wild card” president-elect from its nomination process. Instead of eight years on the leadership path, the commitment is down to four.

At ASGE, Blake says, that’s given people in private practice an opportunity to take part that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to commit to. And she says that a “wild card” also provides some new perspectives. “You don’t get sucked into the education agenda or sucked into practice management, so they have more of an overview point of view, a fresher point of view.”

She likens the arrangement to a three-legged stool, where the treasurer is versed in financials, the secretary on programming, and the wild card on more overarching strategic themes. “It’s a balance that works really well,” she says.

To be clear, ASGE isn’t bringing total outsiders into its leadership—the wild card needs to have previously served on the board. And it’s still a lengthy process that has actually gotten longer. Over time Blake has extended the tenure of the wild card, who now spends a year on the board in a nonvoting role before becoming president-elect.

The fact of the matter, Blake says, is that no matter how you cut it, leading a large association requires a lot of preparation. “I spend quite a bit of time helping the presidents get ready to be president,” she says. “I love watching the transition, I love seeing them grow and gain a broader outlook… but you need to be careful that people still have time to get prepared. In our organization, it’s a big job.”

And that’s the sticky wicket when it comes to board leadership. You want freshness and efficiency and creativity and innovation, however you define those things. You may even be able to chop your board-tenure requirements in half to get some of those things, as ASGE has. But getting great leaders with the skills to lead will always involve a good deal of preparation. Some of this “preparation,” if associations are honest with themselves, is ritual and ceremony that can easily be dispensed with; some of it is relevant education. The smart association can determine which is which, even if it can’t rocket a brilliant mind to the top.

What does your association do to streamline the path to board leadership? 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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