Redirecting the Leadership Path

By: Jacqui Cook

The road to volunteer leadership is more open than ever, as more organizations are trying to engage diverse volunteers and position new leaders sooner rather than later. Associations are finding new ways to identify and nurture their future leaders by rethinking the traditional leadership pipeline.

Take a look inside the meeting rooms on Committee Day at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) annual meeting, and you'll notice something a little different: Young, eager faces seated around the table, not actually voting but listening intently as though they were.

The hope is that one day—in the very near future—that's exactly what they will be doing.

A group of students, undergraduate seniors through Ph.D. level, attends ASHA's annual meeting as part of the organization's Minority Student Leadership Program. The program targets about 30 to 40 students each year who have demonstrated leadership qualities at school or within their communities, with a special emphasis on underrepresented racial or ethnic minority groups to keep the track to leadership filled with a diverse and inclusive range of candidates.

The students are asked to attend the annual meeting to observe association leadership in action at the committee and board level. They also prepare a presentation that is reviewed by association leaders and attend a leadership seminar and other sessions to develop their skills and connect with board members and other leaders in the organization.

"We try to allow these students to see firsthand what leaders in our organization do," says Vicki Deal-Williams, chief staff officer for multicultural affairs at the 140,000-member organization. "We constantly provide them with tips and testimonials. They typically ask our president and board, 'How did you get here?' because they are able to have that kind of access to them."

The answer to "How did you get here?" is something ASHA and numerous other associations are rethinking as they realize many members no longer are content to take the traditional path of leadership in the organization. They don't want to invest six, seven, eight, or more years on the committee path and then try to get on the board, then executive committee. In addition, associations are grappling with how to diversify their boards—by race, gender, or location—without waiting 10 years or more and risking losing underrepresented members.

"The pathway to leadership is clearer to me, but it looks like spaghetti," Deal-Williams says. "There are so many more ways to become involved and become a leader."

Change Comes Slowly

The reality is that the spaghetti pipeline is still a rarity as associations struggle with changing a leadership culture that has been entrenched for decades, says Cynthia D'Amour, MBA, president of People Power Unlimited, LLC, and author of The Lazy Leader's Guide to Outrageous Results. She notes that most people spend three to four years in a position and can be expected to change careers three to five times before retirement. That means they are no longer willing or able to spend years waiting to become a leader in that industry's association. Still, her case files are of full of examples from associations not willing to adjust for that fact:

  • One association had a 17-year ascension plan to the board presidency, a process she painstakingly worked with them to get down to 13 years, a number the organization thought was "cutting edge."
  • A corporate executive wants a year between board commitments so she can attend to her personal life, but she is afraid that will derail her path to leadership. "She's a top-level professional, and she said she can't make that commitment," D'Amour says.
  • A national past president of an organization joined a new association and wanted to become a leader there. She was told she had to start from the beginning, the same as a brand-new member, and work her way through the committees even though she already had been a top leader.

Cases like these and many others D'Amour hears about demonstrate the need to offer several equally effective and acceptable paths to leadership within an organization.

"The frustration level is really up," she says. "I don't think as a community we've started experimenting enough and going back to why do we ask people to do what we ask them to do," she says. "Does it really take seven years to be a qualified board member? What is the purpose of seven years to become a leader? And if they do give seven years, what experience do you guarantee?"

Vernetta L. Walker, director of consulting for BoardSource, says the key to combating this frustration is transparency around the path to leadership. The organization must make clear how it fills leadership positions and communicate honestly to the membership about how they can get on the path to the board. If an organization says it will consider board candidates who have not served in traditional "feeder" roles, it must reflect that in its choices.

"What's the message being communicated to membership?" she says. "Is the criteria for leadership clear? I think a lot of organizations get it right in terms of making it clear what they are looking for, but there are others where it might be termed a beauty pageant. Who's popular? Who do we know? Who's friends with everyone? That's not a strategic path to leadership."

John Forbes, chief operating officer at the American Academy of Pediatrics, also cautions against assuming everyone who is serving in a volunteer role is interested in working his or her way up to president. He says AAP brings physicians in where they are needed, then lets them decide what path to take.

"For a lot of our doctors, being elected by the district as their top leader is a very desirable end game for them," he says. "Serving on board of directors is a very desirable place for them to get to. Not all of them get to the board thinking, 'Now I have a chance to be president.' They come with the goal of serving the organization. It's a very lofty and laudable goal. It's a service-oriented goal, and they want to create a better place for children by serving."

Similarly, ASHA has discovered some of the participants in its leadership program decide to use those skills as leaders in their state associations or in another area within the field, and that's OK.

"They become wonderful ambassadors for our organization," Deal-Williams says. "Our original thought was that they would be in the pipeline for our board, and that hasn't materialized. At first we were concerned, but we realized they are serving in so many ways, we didn't want to stifle that and channel that into only one area. We benefit much more if we give them the skills and let them lead wherever they are."

Respect the Nominating Committee

At the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), there is an open call among the 16,000 members every year for committee service and nominations to fill elected positions. The result generally is a mix of those who've been serving on committees for years and others who are just getting into service. For example, there are six vice presidents on the nine-person executive committee, and two of those six have not served on the board, says CEO Nancy Somerville. One came directly from committee service and one was well known in academics and went straight to being a vice president.

The organization encourages its 48 chapter leaders, who sit on the 60-member board, to look for local people who might be good leaders now or in the future. The organization's philosophy is that if someone answers the call to serve, the organization will find them a place to do it.

"Typically, more than 200 people respond to the call for volunteers," she says. "It's rare that we don't find something. We have a professional practices committee that has a lot of subcommittees and does a lot of work. They always need additional hands, so if we don't find a home for someone, we suggest they try professional practices."

Sometimes, attracting new members to the leadership pipeline is simply a matter of timing.

"Sometimes we'll get an older member who says, 'Now I have some time to volunteer,'" Somerville says. "A lot of the nomination emails are really touching. People say, 'I've never served nationally and really thought I should give some of my time there.' It's really great."

For ASLA, the key to putting the right mix of people on the path to leadership rests with a vital group: the nominating committee. This is especially important at ASLA because all elections must be contested, and the nominating committee is charged with making sure the slates are balanced (i.e., a well-known member is not paired on the ballot with a newcomer).

"Leadership is not about being able to promote yourself," Somerville says. "The nominating committee, while not perfect, is really a good system and very helpful in sorting through and not getting blindsided by self-promotion. They take a hard look at the candidates and put a lot of time into looking into what the society needs."

Delivering Diversity

When considering your association's path to leadership and the message it sends to your membership, Deal-Williams, Walker, and others agree it must include the topic of diversity. If an association is trying to diversify the members of its board—by age, race, gender, geography, or other criteria—a long path to leadership could be a deterrent to potential candidates. In addition, a board that will not reflect any diversity until a candidate completes five or more years of other service risks losing members and potential members who do not want to belong to an association with nondiverse leadership.

"In the United States, our demographics are changing so dramatically, but are associations doing the same thing?" Walker says. "Whom do they need at the table? What changes do they have to make to get them there? It is an understanding that yes, they can make those changes if they don't feel so wedded to traditions that no longer serve a purpose."

Deal-Williams cautions that not diversifying could have a dangerous impact on membership, something few associations can afford right now.

"If you look in the mirror and you can see yourself, you're going to stay," she says. "If you can't see yourself, you're going to get a new mirror."

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, a leadership-development organization that offers opportunities for young professionals, counsels organizations to begin building a diverse pipeline now so it grows as the nation's diverse population grows. According to CHCI, it is estimated one of every two new workers will be Hispanic by 2025.

The frustration is connecting talented young people with associations where they can use their skills and find a place on the leadership track, says CHCI President and CEO Esther Aguilera.

"What I am finding with many of our applicants is they are very interested in nonprofit leadership, but they are not finding a way to get their foot in the door and are often are more easily recruited by other sectors," she says. "As a result, the nonprofit industry is losing out on a tremendous amount of talent because they are not acting fast enough."

To bridge that gap between the two, CHCI has a database to connect many of the applicants to its leadership programs with associations looking for talent. While CHCI cannot accommodate every applicant for its scholarships, internships, and fellowships, the database has the capacity to help match thousands of potential leaders with organizations where they can begin building a career.

"For associations, when it comes to the Hispanic or Latino community, the pipeline has to start at every level," Aguilera says. "That includes encouraging the idea of some type of paid internship to get their foot in the door and get experience. At midlevel, that means getting people experience so they can jump in and be leaders. There is no excuse; we can help them find talent anywhere in the country."

Jacqui Cook is a freelance writer in the Chicago area. Email: [email protected]

Sidebar: Four Paths to More Diverse Boards

Esther Aguilera, president and CEO of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, offers these four suggestions for associations interested in modifying the leadership pipeline to broaden diversity:

  1. Assess the diversity of staff in your own association. Make sure new hires reflect the current and future diversity of the profession.
  2. Consider how to attract a more diverse pool of individuals to the industry you represent.
  3. In terms of diverse leadership, tap the current talent you have or go out and find new talent, even at senior levels.
  4. At the board level, create a midcareer advisory board to give more members exposure to leadership.