James Zaniello, FASAE
James Zaniello, FASAE, is president and CEO of Vetted Solutions, a retained executive search firm headquartered in Washington, DC.
Successful CEOs recognize that three practices—enabling ongoing learning, ensuring alignment, and modeling accountability—are vital to engaging volunteer leaders’ vision, empowering leadership, and sustaining trust.
Whether your association meets its strategic goals depends greatly on how well the board defines direction, invests leadership, and supports execution. Central to the board’s success in playing those roles is the board-CEO partnership, the nurturing of which arguably falls disproportionately to the executive. To a large degree, the groundwork you lay to sustain engagement and trust enables your board’s best. Those CEOs who most successfully tap into their boards’ vision and leadership capacity are sensitive to the importance of three practices that transcend association management fundamentals.
Foundational association governance research reported in What Makes High-Performing Boards (2013, ASAE) documented that the highest-performing boards embrace a culture of learning and they benefit from staffs that prepare them well for meetings by providing relevant, complete information. Board orientation is important, but enhancing and tapping into collective knowledge of leaders demands a continual approach.
The CEO, collaborating with the chief elected officer, must be a catalyst for strategic board discussions that stimulate learning—for example, about impactful subjects such as diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility—while appreciating nuances that might steer subject matter choices and direction. Further, it is essential that cyclical board onboarding surfaces and clarifies philosophical considerations. For example, brokering conversations about the board’s risk tolerance and compensation philosophies builds healthy discourse and trust, making difficult board discussions that may come later more comfortable to have.
As any CEO knows, nothing will derail progress (or tenure) faster than misalignment of culture, values, or expectations. During an executive search, we use a painstaking process to make a complementary match. However, savvy CEOs make it their business to continually facilitate conversations with their boards that function as reality checks: “Is this direction still on target?” “Are we going too slowly, or too fast?”
Not only do conversations like those elicit useful information, but they also convey empathy, which enhances trust. There is a big relationship component here, too. A well-cultivated board-exec relationship will help weather inevitable bumps in the road, but when the relationship is shaky, even small issues can become big ones in the eyes of the board, so investing in the development of authentic relationships is paramount. Bear in mind the changing faces of the board as well—especially taking care to put in the effort necessary one year to the next to understanding the chair-elect. Often, visiting the chair-elect at work a year before that individual’s term as chair is time well-spent in setting the stage for leadership continuity.
Accountability works both ways. The CEO must accept accountability for execution and the board for its fiduciary and strategic responsibilities. If either fails, the prospects for complementary leadership are slim. A big key to building or sustaining a culture of accountability is to model it. Commit to responsibilities. Expect the same of staff. Report results, completely and clearly. Tell the truth. Back up the staff.
I am reminded of a colleague who accepted an interim CEO role at an organization whose board and staff had lost a degree of trust in one another. Noticing this, the interim executive began visibly committing to roles and specific responsibilities—and then regularly reporting on progress. The board noticed. The simple approach demonstrated progress, opened communication, and set the stage for what the board could expect from its CEO. Importantly, it also helped build a positive feeling about the relationship, in a relatively short time establishing greater trust—the bedrock of collaborative progress.