Think Tank: Strained Relations in Associations
Association executives will all have experienced difficulties with presidents, chairmen, or directors. They are a mixed bunch and over the years the good, the bad and the ugly come and go. Never-the-less, as professionals you have to get on with them, accept their peculiarities and petty likes and dislikes whilst the serious business of governance goes on.
In my twenty-odd years’ working my way up through membership bodies, trade associations, and charities, I’ve discovered that Boards come in many shapes and sizes. Each adopting a different attitude to the responsibilities they have taken on – sometimes unwittingly. They range from the indolent to the hyperactive, the distant to the micro-managing, and all shades in between. Their attitude to the chief executive and secretariat can also vary wildly.
Some see the association as their personal fiefdom, with the staff as serfs to do their bidding; the chief executive’s prime functions to ensure the success of the golf day and the quality of wine at the annual dinner. Such attitudes stem from the days when association secretaries ruled; when finding a place on a Board or committee was one way for family firms to distract patriarchs who refused to step aside; when a culture of amateurism prevailed; and directors’ focus was sometimes blurred. In my time I’ve met them all – the commanding, the conniving, the conceited, and the committed – but when it comes down to it there are two distinct types of association Board. One meddles and micro-manages in the mistaken belief that as business people themselves they must be able to do better than their ‘employees’. The other understands their strategic role but accepts that the secretariat are professionals – experts in their field – with the CEO taking operational responsibility on a day-to-day basis. Only the chairman can determine which route they take.
But don’t let’s fool ourselves, chief executives can be a mixed bunch too. Perhaps best described as entrepreneurs, showmen, and diplomats all rolled into one, they have to juggle the often conflicting interests of their members to achieve consensus, and they can be complex characters. Nevertheless the key relationship is that between the chairman and the chief executive, and trouble follows where this fails. As well as a shared commitment to the cause, relationships must be based on mutual respect and trust. They must be frank and open, with problem areas being addressed amenably. Empathy, communication, humility, and self-awareness are the key differentiators.
The two roles must be complementary. The chairman is responsible for leading the business of the Board while the chief executive manages the association’s business. The chairman and the chief executive must be aware of each other’s activities and work together as a team. The duties of the chairman – a non-executive role – arise from their position as the chief elected officer of the association and their responsibility for presiding over its official business and the Board. The chief executive is responsible to the chairman and the Board for directing and promoting the operation and development of the association consistent with its primary objectives. In so doing they exercise executive stewardship over the association’s physical, financial and human resources.
There used to be a joke along the lines of, ‘what’s the similarity between a non-executive director and a shopping trolley?’ Answer: ‘They both have a mind of their own, but you can get more food and drink in a non-executive director!’ It may be an old chestnut, but it illustrates that the fault line between executive and non-executive responsibilities is often where most tension develops. Some secretariats are resentful of the oversight of a largely non-executive Board that they sense doesn’t share their vision or commitment – or jeopardy to their income – or appreciate the skills and professionalism they bring to a difficult job. Therefore, not-with-standing their fiduciary responsibilities, and duties to members, every Board must remember that the lively-hoods and well-being of all those employed by the association are at stake and the consequences of ignoring this fact can be enormous. Believe me, I’ve been on both sides of the fence, as director, chief executive, trustee, and humble foot-soldier, and I know how morale suffers when internecine warfare sours relations or the Board appears to lose the plot!
©2017 M J Hoare