New board installation--especially at the executive level--can be an emotionally turbulent time. Will this new group respect previously established goals and innovate toward new ones that align with the organization's mission? The heart of an association’s leadership, of course, is the president/board chair (we’ll use “president” in this post to represent the board lead), and this individual can have a tremendous impact on the direction of your organization. Thus, it is imperative to give your new president what he or she needs to be successful right out of the gate.
Build a Tandem System
If it doesn’t already, your organization should consider matching the executive committee vice president with the president as often as possible. This works especially well, of course, when the vice role filters up to the president role because a person’s vice presidential year serves as training for their presidential year. Too often, vice positions are seen as having limited responsibility, and almost as simply “being in wait” for their big presidential debut. But if there is a concerted effort to include the vice chair on board prep calls, strategic discussions, and post-meeting follow up, for example, the learning curve during their presidential year will be markedly less steep, allowing them to focus on responsible service.
Create Role Clarity
Remember, your board decides WHAT to do and staff/committees should decide HOW to do it. Understanding and respecting this division of responsibility should be a must for your president. No, we don’t want to discourage them from helping. Rather, we want to keep them focused on their responsibilities, which do not include getting lost in the weeds of planning and other such minutiae. This is why we have competent staff and talented committee volunteers. Set the direction and let those you’ve placed trust in run with it. Related, the president should understand who runs the staff: the chief staff executive (i.e., executive director, CEO, etc.). If you follow the above point to build a tandem system, this idea should be well-ingrained by the time a president takes their post. Afterall, they’ve heard and seen the benefits of this setup for a year now.
We are all busy, certainly. But having a one-hour check-in call or meeting with your board president on a regular basis could save interruptions throughout the week and miscommunications down the line. Whether this check-in involves multiple members of the staff or not, there should be, at the very least, a loose agenda to ensure high priority issues are tackled. It may seem unnecessary for a casual meeting, but you can build a lot of credibility by coming to a one-on-one prepared, leading a meaningful conversation, and leaving with items solved/issues addressed.
Make Them Learn...and Lead
Even though board presidents should live in a higher-level, strategic world, that doesn’t mean they are exempt from doing work. While you are by their side before and during any engagements and meetings, they should educate themselves on details about the membership makeup, upcoming events, committee opportunities (and the people who lead those committees) and other association happenings. This builds confidence in leadership in the eyes of members. The board president should also be equipped to lead the board meetings, facilitate productive discussion and offer insight when necessary. This is important so their fellow board members look at the president as the organization’s authority and de facto leader. AND, because you have role clarity and weekly regular check-ins, they should have the confidence to lead meetings, and rely on the chief staff executive mostly during deep-dive situations.
Be a Resource
Finally, the board president should feel comfortable to not know it all. And that’s where a supportive staff comes in. Each staff member should be a resource in their functional area and, when called upon by the chief staff executive, be willing to share that expertise with the board president. Staff is also key in being able to field calls/questions coming from membership to the board president. To keep his/her focus on their chief responsibilities, association staff should be willing to offer help and advice to the president when appropriate.
As with many dealings in the association space, much of what you do comes down to being a good listener (what do my members want?) and providing exemplary customer service (what can I do to make sure members are happy and would recommend us to their industry counterparts?). Preparing your board president--and subsequently guiding them successfully through their leadership year--is no different. Educating them adequately for what is to come, setting expectations, checking in regularly, building their leadership skillset and giving them what they need to find success are all things association execs can do, regardless of job title, to ensure you are working with a board president who has the organization’s best interest at heart.
Now let’s say you’ve got your new president up and running, but there are other staff members you need to onboard - and quickly, at that! For tips and best practices, check out our free guide, Best Practices for Onboarding New Staff!