Congratulations! You’ve just been named executive director of your association, an individual membership organization with a rich history and recent challenges.
As the executive director, you report to the board of directors and have been hired to run the day-to-day operations of the organization. You are the only staff member the board hires directly, and it’s your job to hire and manage other staff members. Together, you and your staff will work to fulfill the organization’s mission, as defined by the board.
The board’s primary function is to ensure that the association fulfills its mission. They have hired you to make it happen.
As part of its charge to fulfill the mission, however, the board has some specific responsibilities. They include:
- Establish the association’s mission and purpose
- Hire an executive director
- Provide financial oversight and direction
- Ensure adequate resources
- Establish and maintain legal and ethical accountability
- Establish short and long-term strategic planning and oversight
- Evaluate the board’s performance
- Promote the association to its various publics
- Assess the association’s programs and services
- Support the executive director and assess performance annually
You might have an effective board from your first day on the job, but you might also find your board is struggling with all or part of its responsibilities. If that’s the case, strategic action on your part can help the board define its purpose, provide appropriate leadership and energize staff and volunteers.
Here are 8 tips for successfully managing your board of directors:
Members to Members, Staff to Staff
If you have earned your CAE certification, you’ll remember this advice from your studies: members always deal with members, staff always deals with staff, and the chief executive officer is the only person who deals with the board. You are the primary liaison between the board and staff members, especially the board chair. When issues arise, you should be the contact person on staff for board members.
Establish rapport with the board chair
The board chair has been instrumental in hiring you and has a vested interest in your success. This person can help you understand any challenges facing the association, the personalities involved and solutions the organization has already tried. Board chairs, in general, have spent many years volunteering with the association and want it to succeed. They can be a great resource for you. Remember, however, that the board chair is not your mentor or best friend. Keep your relationship professional.
Find a mentor or support group
As an executive director, you will face tough times and difficult decisions. You’ll get frustrated. Things won’t always go the way you expect. When you need advice, turn to a mentor or professional support group, not your board. You certainly can discuss challenges with your board members but do it from a position of strength. Express your doubts confidentially to a close colleague, particularly if they have acted in a similar role, and keep a professional demeanor with your board.
Determine board skills and personalities
Board members are a varied group. They all are professionals in the industry, and they have different skills and personalities. As you get to know them, you can determine who works best in what situations and what support they might need to succeed. For example, someone who enjoys public speaking may be a great spokesman for the organization and someone who has an interest in finance may do a great job as treasurer. Sometimes, however, the most reserved person on the board is required to make a public presentation and may need more help than normal to do it well. Your knowledge of their skill set can help you provide the appropriate level of assistance.
Encourage diversity on your board
Your membership is diverse in many ways – age, gender, background, experience, and beliefs, just to name a few. Your board will find it easier to serve the association’s mission and membership if it shares the diversity of the industry. You may need to examine how members become board members in your organization and create a pipeline that allows diverse representation on the board.
Training can help the board work together better
A change in leadership can be a great time to introduce new ideas or procedures, as well as to make sure that board members understand their responsibilities. Bringing in outside consultants to conduct board training can help the board understand its roles and responsibilities, work together more effectively, or confront challenges facing the organization. Get buy-in from your executive committee and choose the presenter carefully. Done well, board training can help get everyone on the same page.
Working with multiple personality types
One of the best parts of a board of directors is pulling from the experience and expertise of a whole group of people – but sometimes trouble might arise. You might have a board that works together extremely well, but you might also have some board members with difficult personalities. They might want to fix one issue that they don’t like or may have a personal agenda that they share at every meeting. Others may simply be the loudest voices in the room. You can still have productive meetings with mildly difficult members, but in the extreme, you may need to consider the resignation or removal of toxic board members. The test is how they affect the rest of the board. If you can’t get work done, other board members are threatening to resign, or the tension level at meetings is so high members stop attending, you might need to take steps to remove the extremely difficult board member. What action you can take will depend on your governance structure. Be aware that this is a time that the board chair will take a more active role than the executive director.
Advice is great but watching colleagues who manage highly-effective boards is even better. As you prepare to become the chief executive officer in an association, watch how other CEOs work. You can take their best ideas into your new position. We wish you continued success!
Emma is the Marketing Manager at Rhythm. When she's not thinking about all things content-related, you can find her traveling or shooting 35 mm film.