Help Leaders Stay in Their Own Lane

Tips to guide volunteer presidents to lead, not overrun, your association.

I met with dozens of AEs in March during the AE Institute in Austin to offer human resources help, and I couldn't help but notice how often the talk turned to how to keep the board president in his or her own lane, so to speak. Board presidents often come to the job with an ideology of how the association should operate and a set of goals they hope to accomplish during their term. But sometimes, these goals clash with the objectives of the association executive. 

Savvy AEs know they need to learn their leadership's agenda starting with the president-elect so they are well-prepared by the time a leader assumes the president's role. But leaders can be unpredictable, and it's never easy to negotiate a new relationship with someone who may not have a realistic understanding of their position.

When the president's agenda differs from that of the AE's—especially when presidents misunderstand the role and think they should manage the association's daily operations—there's no avoiding the situation. Putting your head down and waiting until next year is not an option. Act quickly to educate the president on real versus imagined association governance in a way that gets him or her on board and feeling empowered.

Commitment and buy-in to defined leadership roles begin with an intentional conversation, by which I mean the AE should define the intent for the conversation. Is it to win or is it to gain commitment? When you approach the conversation with the intent of gaining commitment, your volunteer leader does not leave with the sense of being defeated.

Planning your conversation might start with the background of why you're having the conversation. A dialogue might start with: "As your presidency begins, it may make sense for us to review the roles and responsibilities we assume individually, as well as those we share. Doing this will helps us have a great working relationship during your presidency."

As a guide for this conversation, look to NAR's "President and Chief Staff Executive Checklist." This tool can help you acknowledge the president's agenda and gain commitment to your own as you address the relevance of each item.

During this conversation, look to supporting association governance documents to supplement information and discussion. Depending on how these documents are drafted, roles may not be clearly spelled out. When this happens, look to other resources, such as your AE job contract or performance goals and the association strategic plan. Spending time early on in the president's term clarifying mutual expectations can go a long way toward a successful year. 

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you may still end up with a president who wants to redefine his or her role. When that happens, decide how much slippage you want to allow. Does it make sense to address a single incident, or is it wiser to let it go unless there's another? 

Here's a three-step strategy you can apply to any situation in which members or leaders are overstepping their role.

  1. Address the situation in a conversation with the leader with the intent to change their behavior. Use your judgment as to whether the discussion should be private or if other parties need to be involved, although most people are more comfortable in a private discussion.
  2. Explain and clarify roles and responsibilities of the AE, staff, and each member of the leadership team.
  3. Use your governance documents (policy or bylaws) to back up your position and help your discussion.

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