Coping With Conflicts: When You and the New President Don't See Eye to Eye
By: Robert E. McLean, CAE
|Summary: What happens when you have a new client, or the new president of an existing client, who doesn't seem to get along with you or your AMC? How should you respond to the volunteer leader who doesn't seem to appreciate your role, what you have accomplished, and what you can offer the nonprofit?|
What happens when you have a new client or the new president of an existing client who doesn't seem to get along with you or your AMC? How should you respond to the volunteer leader who doesn't seem to appreciate your role, what you have accomplished, and what you can offer the nonprofit?
Many client conflicts occur because of a lack of information or a misunderstanding of the AMCs role, problems that can be easily addressed. Others occur when the results of your work are not what the volunteer leader expects, a situation that is harder to resolve—and may be impossible to resolve.
Preventing the Conflict
The best way to deal with personality and cultural conflicts is to do everything possible to prevent them from happening. That's especially true when making sure a client understands what you can and should do for them—managing expectations through information and conversation.
Here is the single most important question to ask: "A year from now, how will you determine whether we have succeeded as your AMC?"
It's easy to understand why some conflicts between AMCs and clients occur. Although we focus on the nonprofit for several minutes or hours every day, the volunteer leader often is involved in the nonprofit only a few minutes of a given day, if that. We know the scope of services well; your new president hasn't looked at the contract in weeks or months (and cannot remember where it is). You know exactly what you have done during the last 30 days (or will in the first 30 days when the new client is officially on board); your overworked or over-committed new president, because of some urgent mater in his or her personal or business life, has barely looked at your emails.
The solution to this type of problem is simple, but perhaps contrary to your nature: you need to toot your own horn. Clients forget what we do, and how well we do it, unless we remind them. Often. This is not about being immodest; it's about cutting through the clutter to ensure that your volunteer leader knows what you have done. They are busy and they forget unless we remind them.
How you can best report your results may vary, based on the client. Some AMCs use formal, written monthly reports. Others use the executive director's report during board and executive committee teleconferences as a way of reminding the entire board of the scope of work you do. Some divide up the information into a series of emails distributed monthly or quarterly.
With a new board president or other officer (especially with the person who will some day become your president), it is imperative to start well by having a conversation with this person about what you are supposed to do, what you can do (by expanding the contract), and what you have been told by this person's predecessor not to do. Schedule this meeting before this individual takes office and then set up regular meetings on a schedule that suits your client. A brief phone call every two weeks in the first year is ideal, unless the client sees that as more time than what is available.
When you meet with a new volunteer leader, assume this person knows next to nothing and review everything. Your new president most always will have different priorities than his or her predecessor, so identify those hot-button issues early, and then report on them consistently using the communication tool preferred by your client.
Here is the single most important question to ask: "A year from now, how will you determine whether we have succeeded as your AMC?" The answers may surprise you and will certainly tell you where to focus your time and energy and what to include in future reports.
Addressing the Conflict
If your best efforts to prevent conflict fail, acknowledge the problems and develop a plan for resolving them. Get the answers to questions like these:
- What are we underperforming?
- What have we failed to do, and is that task covered by your current contract?
- What is preventing us from doing well: a lack of budget, a lack of talent, or something else?
- Have your expectations of the AMC changed? If yes, are the new expectations reasonable?
The answers to these questions often reveal that the client is working without all the facts or has unreasonable expectations. For example, a new president was disappointed that "only" 10 percent of the members responded to a membership survey, not realizing that we had actually doubled the response rate from the previous year. Why didn't he realize we had done a better job of encouraging responses? Because we didn't tell him.
A more typical example is the client who doesn't understand why the AMC hasn't done something. The answer most often is that the task is not included in the scope of services, is outside of the budget, or depends on the involvement of another board member who went AWOL.
When You Cannot Fix It
Sometime volunteer leaders and executive directors just don't work well together. Perhaps that's because of poor communication or unmet expectations or personalities that are just a bad fit. Larger AMCs have the option of putting a different executive director on the account. But for smaller AMCs, that's typically not an option.
Two years ago, we said goodbye to a client that we'd had for many years. They had a small budget but unreasonably large expectations. The incoming leaders decided that we were not responding fast enough to emails or addressing the issues they contained. In a meeting to address them, I learned that the client expected us to respond to all emails within two hours—all 75 emails a day. We tried, unsuccessfully, to explain that our problem wasn't the size of the client's management fee, but what they expected for it.
After going through the scope of services in a second meeting and reviewing what we could deliver, and when, we realized there was a second problem. The incoming president believed she knew as much, or more, than we did about nonprofit management. It became clear that we were not going to satisfy her and that she was always going to expect more and faster service than the contract warranted.
As an AMC colleague who authored an article on this issue several years ago once said, sometimes you just have to say goodbye to a client. The expectations are too great or personality differences are too great to overcome. When you are small and the monthly retainer is helping pay the rent, this is one of the toughest decisions you can make. But it is often the best decision if you know that all the hard work can never overcome the problems you have identified.
We notified our problem client that we would not seek an extension of our contract. They were very surprised at our action and even tried to talk us out of it. I declined because the incoming president's view of us was, I believed, unalterable. And sometimes life is just too short to subject yourself to an ongoing nightmare. When you start to dread every phone call from a client, it's just time to go. We did, and the change in my mood and of my employees was significant and immediate.
Could we have done a better job of anticipating these problems, of meeting with the leaders more often to make them aware of the issues we faced? Unquestionably. That's why we have changed the way we communicate with our clients and how often we do it.
Quality Communication Is the Key
Whether you are trying to manage expectations with a new volunteer leader or resolve a problem you didn't even know about until recently, effective communication is usually the solution. And the absolute worst way of addressing such problems is through email messages.
Email is cheap, easy, and fast, but it cannot effectively convey your appreciation for a client's concerns. It usually fails to show your emotion and may even give the misimpression that you are uninterested. When conveying general information, email is ideal. But to ensure that your message is clearly received, pick up the phone, get in the car, or get on a plane (whatever the budget and the geography involved will allow). When you read an email that makes you ask, "Don't they know that . . . ," pick up the phone. When a client indicates they are unhappy, pick up the phone. When you realize you are facing unreasonable expectations, pick up the phone.
Here's the bottom line: If your client says there's a problem, there is a problem (even if it is based on a lack of information). Keep an open mind, because sometimes the AMC is at fault or needs to improve. When you get the chance to address the issue, be a good listener. Don't interrupt, even if you hear something that is completely wrong or insulting. Think before you respond. Don't just wait for the client to stop talking so that you can jump right in. Be deliberate and thoughtful in your reaction.
Conflicts with clients are inevitable, but a good communication plan can help you avoid them. When conflicts do occur, find the right way to communicate, and you might avoid losing a lot of sleep—and your client.
Robert E. McLean, CAE, is president of REM Association Services, an AMC in Arlington, Virginia, that manages several national and international associations and a foundation and consults with several other nonprofits. McLean is also the immediate past chair of ASAE & The Center's AMC Section Council. Emai: firstname.lastname@example.org