Keys to a Successful CEO-COO Partnership

There are challenges unique to an association's top leaders. The heads of the Chicago Association of Realtors share how they make it work.

The relationship between an association’s CEO and COO can be a complicated one. The CEO wants a second-in-command who understands the staff and organizational strategy as well as anybody. But there are also specific roles unique to the COO, and though flexibility matters, it’s also important to be clear about who has the last word.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that the word trust comes up often in a conversation with the two top leaders of the Chicago Association of Realtors: CEO Michelle Mills Clement, FASAE, CAE, and Executive Vice President Zack Wahlquist, CAE. Wahlquist joined the association in late 2019, about a year and a half after Mills Clement became CEO. And though the two knew each other previously (they were ASAE DELP Scholars), rapport-building took time, especially since the pandemic began early in their tenure together, wrecking their best-laid plans.

“We had all these beautiful plans for one-on-one meetings that we were going to have in person, breakfasts and happy hours,” Mills Clement says. “I think we went to breakfast once.”

A CEO should know what their strengths and opportunities are.

Further complicating those first months was the fact that the EVP role had been retooled—CAR detached financial duties from the role, which meant that Wahlquist to an extent had to define the job for himself. “[Mills Clement] let me contribute ideas about the areas I was interested in and where my strengths could be. There’s a division based on what makes sense for the organization but also what makes sense for us personally.”

Practically speaking, the division of responsibilities places Mills Clement in charge of implementing CAR’s strategic plan and engaging with the board, with Wahlquist monitoring the plan’s execution among the staff of 44. With Mills Clement being called on to travel often, Wahlquist is often the face of the organization with both staff and volunteers. “We’re not as strict on saying, ‘You can’t talk to a board member or staffer without going through the CEO,’” Mills Clement says. “For them to have someone that they’re comfortable picking up the phone and calling was important. So when I am gone, they can call Zack and get the same answer they would have gotten from me.”

“I really see my role as trying to make Michelle’s life easier,” Wahlquist says. “I think it’s important for somebody who’s looking at that [COO] role like that to understand that they’re going to be in a support role.”

Still, Mills Clement says, a good association CEO should recognize that the relationship is somewhat porous—staff leaders don’t want somebody who usurps their duties, but they also have a responsibility to improve leadership skills throughout the C-suite. “A CEO should know what their strengths and opportunities are,” she says. “That helps you be the best you can be as a CEO, and it helps them be the best they can be. And you have to be flexible. If you bring in somebody and they have a strength that you didn’t realize they had, or they have a desire to do work in a different area, be flexible and allow that to flourish.”

The relationship has been successful, Wahlquist says, despite the lack of those one-on-one breakfasts, in part because they’re both always on—texting is a regular part of their work life. But he also credits a CEO who defines the second-in-command relationship not in terms of what they don’t handle but what they do. “A good CEO can find ways to help the credibility of the number two—as they get started, especially,” he says. “They can be intentional in the ways they communicate what your role is, both for the staff and with the board. I feel really supported, even with the folks who report to Michelle and don’t report to me.”

(Igor Korchak/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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