Lessons From a CEO’s (Very) Brief Tenure

Mary Bono’s four-day stint as interim CEO of USA Gymnastics puts a spotlight on the need for close scrutiny from boards and search firms.

Association executives tend to measure their tenures in years or even decades, not months. Mary Bono’s tenure lasted less than a week.

On October 12, USA Gymnastics announced that Bono, a former congressperson, lobbyist, and gymnast, would serve as its interim CEO. The organization has spent 2018 in turmoil following a high-profile sex-abuse scandal; in January its board resigned, and in September, its new CEO resigned under pressure after nine months on the job. The board introduced Bono as a stabilizing influence and “an outstanding communicator who can coalesce people with differing views and perspectives,” according to a release.

When there is a CEO change, that is the time for a strategic discussion.

But shortly after the announcement, Bono came under fire for her social media posts and connection to a law firm that guided USA Gymnastics under its prior leadership, which was perceived as failing to be transparent about the scandal. Four days later, the board announced that it had accepted her resignation.

Most associations aren’t facing the kind of crisis that USA Gymnastics is. But there are lessons any organization can learn from Bono’s experience about vetting potential executives, and what boards should think about as they go through the search process.

Beth Brooks, CAE, executive director of the Texas College of Emergency Physicians and author of The New CEO’s Guide, said many boards can easily delude themselves into a false sense of security about their association’s status, which runs the risk of hiring leaders who aren’t well-vetted.

“This happens many times have you’ve had an experienced person and there’s been a lot of trust,” she said. “The board has kind of stepped away in some cases from the day-to-day. They don’t know what goes on, so they don’t really know what the skill sets are that they’re looking for, or even what the status of the office is.”

Fixing that, especially for an organization in crisis, demands an open conversation about its trouble spots, she said. “There should be a checklist of questions they should be asking themselves and really being hard on themselves about it,” she said. “When there is a CEO change, that is the time for a strategic discussion. Where are we? Where do we want to be? Do we want change, and what does that look like? Because when they’re interviewing [candidates], they need to know that.”

Brooks said the Bono example is a reminder, too, that leaders are now judged by the content of their social media feeds. In Bono’s case, she used Twitter to criticize Nike for its sponsorship of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, prompting a backlash among prominent gymnasts. USA Gymnastics said it missed that post in its vetting process of Bono.

“When the board is talking with a search firm or with themselves, they need to make sure they’re ticking off all the boxes,” Brooks said. “You need to make sure that their social media is clean.” And, she adds, search committees need to think as broadly as possible about what may constitute a conflict of interest for the potential executive.

“I think scrutiny on that is probably tighter than in years past, but I think they’re going to have to broaden it,” she said. “Some of the questions [for a CEO candidate], especially if it’s a crisis situation where there may be a lawsuit or turmoil, interviewers are going to have to think outside the box.”

Former U.S. Congresswoman Mary Bono, who spent less than a week as head of USA Gymnastics. (U.S. Congress)

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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