The Smart Way for a CEO to Shape a Board

Can association CEOs have a hand in board nominations without looking like they're just looking for rubber stamps? Two execs say yes, but care and diplomacy are in order.

Association CEOs occupy an unusual perch. They serve at the pleasure of the board, but the board is often made up of people who the CEO knows well and may even have directly recommended. This isn’t an inherent ethical problem: After all, CEOs are often best-positioned to understand the association’s strategic goals and the people in its membership who are equipped to help meet them. But CEOs also want to avoid the perception of being self-serving and having an undue influence on the nominating process.

I explored this dynamic—the “delicate dance,” as one CEO put it—in a feature in the latest issue of Associations Now. One take-away from the conversations I had with execs is that there’s a need to ensure that recommendations that CEOs make be clearly framed around the strategic goals of the organization. One way to do that is recommended in the book Recruit the Right Board by William A. Brown and Mark Engle, FASAE, CAE. There, the two recommend shifting away from a traditional nominating committee that tends to focus on filling the year’s open board seats and a more future-focused “leadership development committee” that thinks about grooming volunteer leaders for the long run.

All of this comes down to trust and respect.

More commonly, though, the executive staff has to work by feel to establish a boundary between having input on board composition and manipulating it. According to an ASAE survey, more than half (51 percent) of respondents said executive staff had a lot or a great deal of input on board candidates, and 22 percent of respondents say they had a great deal of input on interviewing those candidates. Clearly leaders are comfortable having a hand in the process. But how much of one?

One case where CEOs are within their rights to speak up is when they know something about a candidate that could be problematic for the association. Vicki Loise, CAE, CEO of the Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening, says there are times she’s felt duty-bound to share information with the chair of a nominating committee. “I would go to the chair of the committee and say, ‘Look, you need to know something about this particular person you all are excited about,’” she says. “Sometimes the chair will go back to the committee and say, ‘I can’t give you the details, but we can’t consider this person.’ That usually works out very well. The CEO has to make sure that there’s a board there that’s going to support the vision of the organization that’s already been established and not take it apart.”

Chris Busky, CAE, CEO of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, says he plays a similar role as an informal advisor to the association’s nominating committee, where he’s a non-voting member. Relationship-building with the committee makes those conversations about difficult personalities easier to manage and less likely to seem manipulative. “All of this comes down to trust and respect,” he says. “If you as a CEO have built that relationship with your board and with your committee leadership, then these conversations are so much easier. I spend a lot of time as the CEO managing and kind of nurturing relationships with leaders. So by the time we come to have some of these potentially tough discussions, they’re easier to have.”

And one way to build that goodwill with nominating committees is to be the person who has one of the toughest jobs when it comes to board elections—contacting the people who didn’t make the cut. Both Busky and Loise take on those responsibilites, in part to help smooth the feathers of people who might be frustrated after multiple runs. But it’s also an opportunity to keep demonstrated talents in the pool for next time.

Still, both say they approach this with an attitude of humility—that as CEOs they can help steer the ship, but can’t elbow their way to the helm. “It’s important to remember what we were all taught when we were getting into association management: The organization is owned by the members,” Loise says. “Eeven though you sit in a very high leadership position, you are still a steward of the organization. You are not an owner and you need to always keep that in mind.”

How do you handle board nominations as a CEO? Share your experiences in the comments.

(gedzun/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

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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