Leadership Unlocked
Essentials for Today’s CEOs
Board Management

When Do You Take a Stand?

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Deciding whether to make a statement on a contentious social issue or to “stay in your lane” isn’t easy. A clear process and board engagement can help.

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.

 

“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.”—Patrick Glaser, MA, MPA, McKinley Advisors

Holding Back

Peter J. O’Neil, FASAE, CAE, CEO of ASIS International, said he sees the value of such internal assessments, and has put its own protocols to use in response to the recent Israel-Gaza conflict. For instance, it published a list of recommended humanitarian support groups. But he said his inclination is to avoid public stands unless a clear case can be made for making one.

“My experience in the last 30 years has been that it is dangerous for an organization to make a public statement about something that does not directly impact the profession or trade that they serve,” he said.

Determining impact can be particularly complicated for a global association like ASIS International. “If we’re going to be prepared to make a comment about race-related matters in one country or one region, we’d better be prepared to make them about race-related matters in other regions,” he said.

And though the association has a process for triaging conversations with the staff and board about public statements, it doesn’t treat it as a one-size-fits-all plan. After all, the kinds of challenges that spark demands for public statements are inherently complex.

“Yes, we have a policy, practice, and system in place, and people identified who will make the decision about what we might say or not say and how we might say it,” he said. “I’m glad to have something as opposed to nothing, because it guides us. But it doesn’t always lead to the same answer or same action.”

APMP has continued the conversations sparked by the Dobbs ruling, including a second well-attended webinar. But, like ASIS, it doesn’t feel compelled to speak out on every; for instance, it declined to change plans to hold a conference in California, despite members who disapproved of its “sanctuary” status regarding undocumented persons. The guide, Harris said, is what serves members overall, and developing a board and volunteer corps that is open to conversation.

“When we’re looking for board members, we’re not looking for radicals on either side,” he said. “We’re not looking for people who feel like they have to come in and change the association. What we’re looking for are people who have open minds and good ideas.”

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.

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