Robert C. Harris Monday, October 21, 2019 Share this article
Association success requires a partnership between the chief elected officer (president or chair of the board) and the chief staff officer (executive director or CEO). This pairing can make or break good governance.
Both persons have a lot at stake. Each brings different knowledge and perspectives to the boardroom, where most of the work is done.
The elected president is eager to lead. His or her job is to advance a mission and strategic plan. While intentions may be good, meetings can be painful because of lacking leadership skills. They have to run meetings, involve the group, understand processes and manage time.
The executive director brings the needed experiences, including meeting management and organizational knowledge. He or she knows about resources, what has been tried, member needs and what works.
An executive director said, “I know how to run a good meeting and the essentials of governance, but I don’t know how heavy-handed I should be at the meeting. Do I prod the board president, pass note and push the agenda?”
While the board, led by the president, is expected to set the direction of the association, the executive director expected to implement programs and manage.
The concern is, “What if the president doesn’t run a good meeting?” What if the board is content to listen to reports, eat a meal and adjourn? Should the executive director step in to rectify matters?
“As the executive, I am unsure how I can sway the board president to stick to the agenda to produce results. While I am the one with association management training and an understanding of governance, I am not the leader of the meeting. It is challenging to watch a meeting go deep in the weeds with only a few directors and notice others who have checked out and feel their time is being wasted,” explains Amy Ybarzabal, executive officer at the Northshore Home Builders Association in Louisiana.
Here’s how to facilitate a collaborative partnership to produce desired meeting outcomes.
Collaborate: Take time at the start of the term to discuss desired outcomes of both parties. The elected officer may have ideas, but they can be unrealistic or unrelated to the existing strategic plan.
The executive director wants to have meetings that don’t waste time and are productive. What platforms and resources will work to advance the desired outcomes of both?
Agenda Development: A good agenda is vital for desired outcomes. If the board chair gives it minimal attention, the meeting may be tedious or bomb. Agenda design will dictate how and what issues will be addressed to advance mission and goals.
Seating: Should the executive sit next to the president or is that reserved for other officers. I’ve found having the exec at the right hand of the president has significant value.
Close proximity will allow for silent cues and hints. If tent cards are used for designated seats, place them strategically to best position directors.
Passing Notes: The president might not want an executive whispering in his or her ear throughout the meeting. Discuss how much guidance the exec should offer.
For example, when discussions are taking too much time without results (“we’re in the weeds”), the exec might just point to the agenda and suggest getting back on schedule. Or, tapping one’s watch and making eye contact to encourage a return to the agenda. Directors often chase squirrels and the executive will be first to notice
It might be worth noting that directors texting each other during a meeting would be inappropriate. To reach understanding and consensus, communications should remain transparent and above the board table. Texting during a meeting is a distraction and may violate confidentiality about board meetings.
Roadmap and Guardrails: Keep the strategic plan in sight of the board president. A frequent question should be, “What part of the strategic plan does that address?”
Some groups format the strategic plan as a placemat style to have a copy at each director’s seat. If the strategic plan is the board’s GPS, then the bylaws are the guardrails for their efforts.
Debriefing: After the meeting, spend a few minutes asking, “How do you think it went?” Look for ways to improve the next meeting to produce maximum results.
The year will pass quickly. Every board meeting should be a positive experience and achieve results.
There is much at stake. The elected president has an agenda and priorities to achieve within the term of office. The executive director is responsible for efficiently, effectively advancing the association and serving members.