How a CEO Promotes Change to a Board

By: Joe Rominiecki

From the CEO position, you might see a need for change long before your board does. But how do you urge the board to take a new direction without overstepping your bounds?

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the January 2010 Associations Now Interactive Extra.

It's not your job to tell your board of directors what to do, but if you're a good CEO, you probably have a strong sense of where the organization should be heading. So how do you get your board on board with an important change without infringing upon its leadership role? Associations Now asked four association CEOs just that.

Find Champions

Even in the best of circumstances, change is difficult. This is particularly true if the change threatens the very nature of how an organization conducts business. Have your board continuously discuss how the profession is changing at each of its meetings and acknowledge that change may be necessary to remain relevant. Since my board members are busy professionals, I start by providing written background on why a specific change is necessary, such as feedback from members, financial data, or policy changes on Capitol Hill.

I find that staff is not always the best messenger. In these cases, I find a few champions on the board to move the proposal forward. That way, the conversation moves away from a staff-board debate and toward a constructive peer-to-peer discussion. I also remind myself that many of the board members have a long history with the organization and that we need to be respectful of decisions that were made years ago as we move toward change.

—Bridget Brown, executive director, National Association of Workforce Development Professionals, Washington, DC. Email: [email protected]

Get an Outside Perspective

Retaining a consultant can be extraordinarily useful in advancing a major change with an association's leadership. An outside expert who is widely recognized in his field will be perceived by board members as having no axe to grind. He may engage key members for background information, conduct a rigorous analysis, and present controversial conclusions without concern about who might disagree.

Before going to the board, it is often helpful to build the case for change with key members in the leadership structure, with key members who have held leadership positions in the past, and with members from different constituencies and of different ages. Having broad representation in a group supporting change makes the need for change far more credible.

A carefully crafted position paper should be sent to the board well in advance of the board meeting. Personal calls should be made to key, if not all, board members, in order to answer questions and clear up misconceptions.

—Richard E. Hollander, executive vice president, Society of Industrial and Office Realtors, Washington, DC. Email: [email protected]

Data, Data, Data

The first step is to present data—quantitative or qualitative—that either indicates that something isn't working or that some other policy or practice will work better and will enable the organization to achieve its strategic goals more quickly, more fully, or less expensively.

The second step is one I alluded to in the first: I always present the change in terms of the mission, vision, strategic direction, or success of the organization. I also like to share the long-range implications of not making a change so that the board understands not only what the options are but also what the likely downstream effects could be of any option. In this way, I seek to help the board understand that it is making a choice.

—Andrea S. Rutledge, CAE, executive director, National Architectural Accrediting Board, Washington, DC. Email: [email protected]

Vision + Credibility

Leading change means creating a vision for your members and then having the credibility to get them to embrace that vision. But you need both vision and credibility to lead successfully. You can have the most creative and innovative vision in the room, but if you lack credibility you can't get anyone to follow you. Similarly, you can have loads of subject-matter expertise and knowledge of an issue, but if you lack vision, what good is the substance?

Credibility, however gained—tenure, experience, gray hair—is just the ante to get into the game. Vision is the ability to turn that experience into a cohesive set of ideas about where to go next. Leadership is about combining the two, getting others to see the same possibilities and then engaging them in efforts to achieve those possibilities.

—Matthew R. Shay, CAE, president and CEO, National Retail Federation, Washington, DC. Email: [email protected]

Joe Rominiecki is managing editor, newsletters, at ASAE in Washington, DC. Email: [email protected]

Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki is a contributing editor to Associations Now.