Starting Strong: Board Relations for First-Time Executives

For a first-time association executive, getting to know the board can be a daunting prospect. How can a freshly minted CEO win the confidence of the organization’s volunteer leaders while establishing a foothold on the top job? Here’s how a few first-time CEOs navigated this experience, achieving long-lasting trust and collaborative relationships with their boards.

Donté Shannon, CAE, remembers vividly his first day on the job at the Specialty Advertising Association of California (SAAC)—especially the experience of sitting in the executive director’s chair for the first time.

“Going from a manager to the executive director role created so many insecurities within me. Questions like: Can I do this? Am I really cut out for this job?” says Shannon, who took over the top position at SAAC in early 2016. “I also moved from the East Coast to the West Coast. I knew no one, had no networks, and no family or friends, so it created an imposter syndrome within me. [It felt like board members] were going to find out I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Even with these first-time-CEO jitters, Shannon had at least one person in his corner—executive coach Cynthia Mills, FASAE, CAE, founder and CEO of The Leaders’ Haven. Before he accepted the position, she worked with him to picture himself inhabiting the seat he was about to take.

“Cynthia was instrumental to my leadership,” Shannon says. “While I was in this position, our conversations changed from, ‘Cynthia, I think I’m in over my head,’ to now saying, ‘This is what I’ve been able to accomplish, and these are the things my board has done.’”

You’re going to have much more of an impact when you have a great relationship with your board.

Last September, after nearly three years as SAAC’s executive director, Shannon announced that he was stepping down to take on a new CEO position at the Association of Equipment Management Professionals. During his short tenure, SAAC rebranded, grew membership, revamped its tradeshow, and established new partnerships in the industry. His executive board evolved too, taking on a new approach to governance that included more deliberate strategic oversight and a formalized process for board orientation and onboarding.

“I now realize that I am a CEO sitting in that chair, and a very successful CEO,” Shannon says. “But what I’m most proud of is the relationships I’ve built. Leaving [the board] felt like losing a close friend.”

Listening Tour

At another point in her career, Mills was herself a first-time association executive. She had close connections with her board, and she credits trust as the key to maintaining long-lasting relationships.

Listening first helped build relationships of trust at a pretty rapid pace.

But trust takes time to build. To get started, Mills says, any new executive must come into the role ready to listen. “Remember that you are now the strategic leader and change maker of the organization,” she says. “The most important place to focus your attention first is on key relationships. You can do this immediately by meeting and listening to your board and staff.”

This year, Chris Busky, CAE, will reach the two-year mark as CEO of the Infectious Diseases Society of America. Looking back, he says, a four-month listening tour laid the foundation for productive collaboration with IDSA’s board.

“Listening first helped build relationships of trust at a pretty rapid pace,” he says. It also “helped accelerate my learning and understanding of the field of infectious diseases. I’m not a physician, and I didn’t have any real knowledge of infectious diseases.”

Most important was a daylong meeting with IDSA’s board president. “I first listened to him talk about what his expectations were of me as CEO. Then I talked about what my expectations were of him,” Busky says. “We defined my first-year goals, clarified our roles, and established guardrails for each one of us.” He recommends such candid conversation with volunteer leaders to any incoming CEO.

Pivot to Leading

After a period of listening and learning, the CEO should be able to draft an actionable 90-day plan that sets direction for the organization’s immediate future. It’s the first in a series of communications that a first-time CEO can use to build the confidence of the board, Mills says.

“You essentially say to them, ‘Here’s what I’ve learned, here’s what I’ve found, and here’s where we’re going next,’” she says. “It also makes important asks upfront, like financial assistance, additional staffing or resources, or volunteer support.”

I realized that when I’m with my board, I need to be the pusher.

The 90-day plan marks the point when a CEO transitions from listening and learning to leading—what Caroline Teugels, executive director of the International Federation of Podiatrists (IFP), calls the moment of “executive ownership.”

“People are looking to you to make the first step, the first decision, and to say or not to say something,” Teugels says. “Coming into this role, I was 34, and being a young woman, I needed to show my board that I could communicate a plan and take action.”

After sharing the plan with board members, she elicited their feedback and made adjustments based on their strategic guidance. “I realized that when I’m with my board, I need to be the pusher,” Teugels says. “But I’m not always at the forefront. As soon as things start moving, I can let my board take over, and I lead from behind.”

Foundation for the Long Term

A 90-day plan, with board input, sets a new CEO on firm early footing. But cultivating a long-term relationship based on trust takes ongoing work with an emphasis on consistent and reliable communication.

That poses a particular challenge for Teugels because of IFP’s global membership. Her executive board represents the U.S., Canada, and a handful of countries in Europe, including Belgium, France, Finland, Greece, and Spain. That means it’s not always easy to meet face to face, and there are language and cultural barriers to overcome.

She conducts most board meetings via conference call. “The real challenge is making sure that everyone on the call understands what everyone else is saying,” Teugels says. “Even when we talk about podiatry, the professional levels can vary [by country]. Some people might have a completely different definition of what podiatry is depending on where they are from.”

One of her favorite tools for board communication is WhatsApp. The instant-messaging app allows board members to videoconference from virtually anywhere in the world, and the device-agnostic texting platform allows anyone from any phone to engage in quick, direct connections.

“If I have an immediate question or concern, I can text the WhatsApp group and receive an immediate response,” Teugels says. “Because we face so many other obstacles, I think we allow ourselves to be less formal in our forms of communications.”

Even without language or cultural barriers, simple tech tools can add transparency and facilitate collaboration between the board and CEO.

Kristen Philips, CAE, executive director of the American Institute of Floral Designers, is a big believer in information and resource sharing. Her preferred tool is Dropbox, a free online file-sharing platform that allows her to give board members 24/7 access to standard operating procedures and other important documents from anywhere with an internet connection.

“The prior executive director had almost every bit of information stored in his head, and the board had to go to him to get answers,” Philips says. “Now, we share resources through Dropbox so that our volunteers are set up for success.”

As a result of all this groundwork, a new executive director typically encounters a moment when he or she wins over the board. “It’s a specific type of trust,” Mills says. “It’s what I call execution trust, where the board has faith in you and the team you’ve assembled.”

First-time executive directors, in particular, need to cultivate deeper relationships with board members to foster execution trust. “You have to get to know them,” Mills says. “Make the relationship human.”

For Shannon, weekly check-in meetings with his board president took place on Sundays. The two lived in the same neighborhood and attended spin classes together, followed by a stop for smoothies where they discussed business for the week ahead.

“You’re going to have much more of an impact when you have a great relationship with your board,” Shannon says. “When my president and I saw each other for the last time, I remember we embraced and broke down crying. To me, that really spoke to the value and quality of our relationship.”

(Getty Images photos)

Tim Ebner

By Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is a senior editor for Associations Now. He covers membership, leadership, and governance issues. Email him with story ideas or news tips. MORE

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