The mistake that most Boards of Directors and CEOs make is they think that trust and blind loyalty are interchangeable terms; they are not. “Trust men and they will be true to you; treat them greatly and they will show themselves great” states Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Whether it be marriage, partnerships or corporate America, if you cannot trust your relationships you will never succeed. As an individual who has spent a great deal of time on both sides of the board table I can certainly speak from experience that Ronald Reagan’s 1981 famous phrase of “trust, but always verify” about nuclear arms treaties with the Soviet Union is very germane to the discussion of trust between Boards and CEOs.
Before we go any further, let me remark that the mistake many association CEOs make, especially those who have lengthy tenures is that the association is theirs and not the members. After all, these long tenured CEOs know where the bodies are buried and have become the organization’s historian; sometimes by default.
The CEO of an association might be respected and might be a partner in the true sense of the word in the governance of the organization but never, ever forget that they are the outsider in a family-owned business. You aren’t a dues paying member – you are the caretaker of the organization that is paying you handsomely to oversee the administration of the business.
The Board/CEO partnership is ruined, much too often when the individuals forget their roles. The Board of Directors are elected to office by their peers to provide oversight and a strategic mindset. Sarbanes-Oxley has certainly demanded greater fiduciary responsibilities for Boards but that certainly doesn’t mean they should start counting pencils. The CEO, whose dual role in many organizations as the administrator and Director (in most cases in a non-voting role) marries both efforts and is the person, with Board trust that can provide guidance in both realms of the organization.
Too often Boards, especially those that created the organization have great difficulty giving up control of the association. It is their baby and it certainly takes time to relinquish day to day influence on how things are conducted. The days of the Executive Secretary are long gone – such a role died in the early 60’s. The Association Executive is hired for his/her people skills and governance skills and those organizations that succeed on an on-going basis remember that they need to give that individual as much latitude and freedom to succeed or fail as possible.
Trust is earned, it is not a gift bestowed upon the employment of a new CEO. It is the responsibility of the CEO to partner with the membership and the Board to create a condition of trust. It is also the responsibility of the CEO to provide the best and the brightest leadership. That Leadership includes recommendations in how to move the organization forward. We must remind CEOs that these are recommendations and not edicts from the mount. Hopefully such recommendations will be accepted and approved but if not, remember the bottom line – it is the member’s organization and not yours!
Trust must also be earned by the CEOs fellow staffers. In most organizations it is the CEO’s responsibility to hire and fire and to find the best possible staff, within budgetary limits set forth by the Board. Too often we have found floundering associations where Directors are too involved with the staff. The staff reports to the CEO and if you want a confused and inefficient workforce, make sure the organizational chart isn’t clear on who reports directly to the Board of Directors.
We all know of instances where the staff becomes confused on who they report to because of the involvement on minor issues from Boards. Again, Boards do have fiduciary responsibilities but do they need to decide who cleans the offices on a weekly basis? It is all a matter of scale and trust.
An association legal counsel years ago put it just right when he mentioned to the Board of Directors of an association that I administered, “let the CEO do his job – if you don’t trust him, fire him but why do you have a CEO if you aren’t going to let him use his talents?” I was the CEO of that association for nearly 25 years prior to merging it out of existence.
For it is mutual trust, even more than mutual interest that holds human associations together. – H. L. Mencken.
Dan Borschke is a Certified Association Executive who has been a CEO for 3 distinct trade associations in his career. He is one of only 230 Association Executives worldwide since 1986 who has been granted the prestigious designation of Fellow by the American Society of Association Executives. He currently is between positions and has written more than 50,000 words or 100 blog postings on the topics of job search and career transition. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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