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Continuing our consideration of challenges governing board members of professional associations face, with the exception of the executive director, governors of professional associations are either volunteers or serve on the basis of their employed positions. An example of the former is IISE; NCAA is an example of the latter.

IISE is a membership-based professional association. Its governing board consists of members who are elected to serve for a limited time. Based on service at the chapter level and within subject area divisions, I served on its governing board before being elected its president.

The NCAA governing board consists of CEOs from colleges and universities. Each governor represents an athletics conference governed by the NCAA. For a 3-year term, I represented the Southeastern Conference (SEC) on the NCAA governing board.

A challenge many professional associations face is rapid turnover in governing board memberships. Arguments abound regarding appropriate lengths of terms on governing boards in general and especially for professional associations. If membership terms are too long, governing boards can become operating boards, instead of policy making and oversight boards; if terms are too short, CEOs can become too controlling and dismissive of governing boards. As such, it’s critical for the executive director and governing boards to function as partners. Achieving the right balance in the partnership leads to long-term success for the organization.

The CEO for professional associations is often titled Executive Director and, as noted, is hired by the governing board to manage the organization. While serving on National GEM Consortium and Southeastern Conference governing boards, I was involved in securing their CEOs.

In selecting a CEO for professional associations, governing boards generally want someone who is familiar with and loyal to the organization and is a proven, effective leader. Depending on the organization, finding someone who measures up in both dimensions can be challenging. If a choice must be made between the two dimensions, governing boards often opt for someone who is a proven, effective leader of a professional association.

When we selected Mike Slive to be Southeastern Conference’s commissioner, he was serving as Conference USA’s commissioner. Likewise, David Belden, who served as ASME’s executive director, served previously as IISE’s executive director; after serving as ASME’s executive director, Belden served as executive director of the United Engineering Foundation.

In contrast, NCAA’s CEO, Mike Emmert, who holds the title of President, served previously as president of the University of Washington. Emmert’s predecessor, Myles Brand, served previously as president of Indiana University. Emmert’s successor, Charlie Baker, served previously as Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. As with higher education institutions, CEO titling and prior experience of CEOs vary considerably among professional associations.

The role of the CEO can be quite different depending on the nature of the professional association. A CEO who is viewed as a peer by governors may be given great latitude in leading the organization and including the governors in setting goals, priorities, and strategic direction. However, if the CEO isn’t viewed as a peer, but more of a technical expert in management (particularly likely if the CEO isn’t directly from the same community as governors), then governors are more likely to view the CEO simply as the “lead staffer” in executing the organization’s vision and priorities. Either model can work well. A challenge occurs when there are differences among governors in their views of whether or not the CEO is a peer.

The key to having a highly effective governing board is selecting people who are qualified, aligned with the mission and goals of the organization, and committed to ensuring decisions are in the best interests of all stakeholders, not just a subset of stakeholders. If governing board members are committed to practicing and supporting servant leadership, then it’s quite likely they’ll be highly effective. This is the case not only for higher education and nonprofit governing boards, but also for corporate governing boards.


Next Week: Part 5