Strong leadership should welcome review

James L. Goldsmith, Esq.

Brett M. Woodburn, Esq.

There is a basic truth for association executives: the nature of an association is far different from that which is found in the corporate or even small business, setting. The association is given life by its members, and it exists principally to serve its members.

Associations are often led by officers and boards of directors, which are principally comprised of members who volunteer their time to serve. Oftentimes, the leadership has goals or agendas it wishes to achieve; and just as often, those goal and agendas change (or at least shift) when leadership changes. This also means that criteria by which the association evaluates its executive officer may change!

It is important that the executive know how others perceive their leadership. By gathering input from members and donors, board members, affiliates and subordinates, a fully transparent performance review process will reinforce positive momentum and decisions, will help identify opportunities to strengthen performance when and where it is needed, and will assist the executive with identifying the changing tides of opinion sooner and more accurately. Of greater importance, however, is the clarification of association values and goals that come from the well defined and consistently implemented formal review processes.

Leading an association is different than running one. The association executive is often charged with figuring out how to accomplish both! After all, the association executive and staff are the only true constants within the association. That constant presence is essential for the longevity and success of the association, not just for its members, but for all endeavors in which the association plays a role or maintains a presence.

"Running" an association typically means ensuring that the day-to-day responsibilities of the association are met -- bills are paid, telephones are answered, membership concerns are noted and addressed. "Leading" an association requires one to step forward into the unknown. That means risk; and with risk, comes the opportunity to make mistakes. The successful executive must balance the obligations of running the association with the need to lead the association effectively and dynamically while minimizing the risks of doing something inherently risky (and still keeping your job).

The role and responsibility of an executive will evolve and change as the member leadership changes. Some leadership teams will want an executive to run the association; others will view their role as leaders as a partnership with the executive director and expect more leadership from you. Still other leadership teams will want you to limit your role to "running" the association, but in reality, will need you to lead it. Ultimately, the association executive's success (and the success of the association) will be tied to their ability to navigate these ever-changing waters.

Opening oneself to review is an example of leadership. Transparency demonstrates confidence, and it also exhibits a willingness to develop along with the association, in ways that the association needs its executive to develop and grow. A well-developed review process also allows the executive to perceive effectiveness when it comes to communication, creativity, interpersonal and supervisory effectiveness, and commitment to the association. Work collaboratively with the member-leadership to develop a process of review that includes specific goals and methods of evaluation. For example:

  • Does the review seek to align and clarify goals and expectations?
  • Does it provide a basis for salary and employment decisions?
  • Will reviewers evaluate only the executive's performance or the performance the association as a whole?
  • Will reviewers use a checklist or narrative form?
  • Will it include input from individuals outside the association or only those within?
  • How will the review provide an opportunity for the executive to learn from the process?
  • From what pool will the reviewers be selected to ensure both historical perspective and relevant assessments are considered?

An effective executive review will allow both the association executive and the member-leadership to make informed and smart decisions. Smart decisions may involve making very few or minor changes, or smart decisions may include implementing wholesale changes. Successful associations are committed to meeting the membership's ongoing needs, while pursuing new initiatives and ventures. The association executive stands in the unique position to influence and implement both aspects. An effective executive review not only provides the member-leadership with a vehicle to help the association executive be a successful executive, but it also gives the association executive the tools needed to succeed.

James L. Goldsmith and Brett M. Woodburn are attorneys with Caldwell & Kearns, P.C. and serve as General Counsel to the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors. A substantial portion of their practices are dedicated to providing advice and counsel to various state and local associations on all matters including risk reduction, risk management, employee and employment matters and policy review and implementation. They also routinely counsel employers on employee relations issues. Mr. Goldsmith may be reached at jgoldsmith@cklegal.net and Mr. Woodburn may be reached at bwoodburn@cklegal.net.