In June 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned constitutional protections of abortion rights in its ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. That same week, Rick Harris, CEO of the Association of Proposal Management Professionals, convened a webinar for members to gather and “give people an opportunity to breathe and talk,” as he put it. (More than 600 attended.) To his mind, creating a space for discussion about the ruling was more important than the fact that APMP’s industry wasn’t directly related to women’s health. What Harris noted was that women are 70 percent of APMP’s membership.
“You have to look at what’s important to your membership as a whole, even though the issue may not directly impact the association,” he said. “We could not affect anything on the Dobbs decision, but we looked at it as an opportunity to lift up people who felt like they didn’t have a voice, and it worked wonderfully.”
CEOs are under increased pressure to speak out publicly on hot-button topics, from racism to immigration to war in the Middle East. The pressure can be particularly acute when organizations condemn CEOs who stay silent, and studies show that younger employees are more inclined than other generations to ask leaders to take public stands. But doing so is a challenging business. How do you determine when, and how, to speak—especially with risk-averse boards?
An overall strategy around public statements is important, says Patrick Glaser, MA, MPA, chief practice officer at McKinley Advisors, which has been collaborating with ASAE through its Association Insights Center on research about managing divergent beliefs within associations. (See sidebar.)
“If you go down the road of jumping into every issue that comes along, you’re going to get in a lot of trouble, because you’re going to find yourself making decisions that are inconsistent,” he said. “Your membership will recognize that and say, ‘Well, you spoke out about the turmoil in the Middle East but not this other issue that’s important to me.’ And you can’t really explain why.”
McKinley and ASAE’s research found that CEOs can play three key roles in such situations. First, to be an objective, nonpartisan facilitator of conversations as they arise with boards, members, staff, and stakeholders. Second, to listen “to get beyond stakeholders’ initial reaction to an issue and really unpack things,” Glaser said. Third, to be a “protector” of an association—weighing the pros and cons of making a statement and determining how the issue relates to the association’s best interests and strategy. Close engagement with the board is key before making any formal statement, according to the research, with a reminder to board leaders that their actions should reflect its duty to the organizations, not their emotions.