Board Presidents

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MAKING A PRESIDENT. Some people come by the ability to be the board president naturally – most do not. So you must be concerned with the need to have some potential presidents on hand to replace incumbent presidents who must eventually step down from the office; and to see that these potential presidents receive the experiences necessary to help them function in the office when the day arrives.

The first step in making a president lies, of course, in the selection process. When you seek out potential board members you should always be on the lookout for those who have leadership potential or who may have served successfully as presidents elsewhere and therefore know what is involved.

The second step is to be sure that when making committee assignments board members and other committee volunteers are rotated among the various committees. Do not simply repeat a person in the same committee assignment year after year. In this way your board members will come to see the organization from several perspectives and some will therefore make more well-rounded presidents for the experience. Committees that are involved in planning or in monitoring activities are particularly well suited for presidential training.

Third, few things prepare one for the presidency any better than to chair an active, involved committee. One thereby obtains the necessary leadership experience together with the experience of chairing meetings. Be sure that those on your board who appear to have what it takes to be president have opportunities to chair important committees. Of course the performance that one turns in either as a committee member or as a committee chair will often provide a good indication of how this person might perform in a larger responsibility such as the presidency.

Occasionally it will be necessary for someone to speak in public on behalf of the organization. Often this person will have to be the president, but if this is not absolutely necessary, why not send someone whom you expect may eventually become your president. His or her performance in this role will, once again, give some indication as to his or her presidential capabilities. One caveat, however! The possession of a good – even a commanding – speaking voice is not by itself a reliable indicator of leadership qualities.

It can be good experience for a would-be president to be assigned to represent the organization on some other body or in some other group. To properly represent your organization requires one to be thoroughly knowledgeable about the organization – normally a prerequisite for the presidency. It should also be noted, however, that should you have to reach outside the present complement of board members for your board president in some unusual circumstance, first seek out someone who has performed the role of president successfully elsewhere. Once in the job, this person can quickly learn the business of the organization and will have the help of other board members while doing so.

Serving as a vice president and, in the process, occasionally having the opportunity to fill in for the president is, of course, excellent training for the presidency. However, let it be said that holding the office of vice president should never be a guarantee of becoming president. The nominating committee must always have the option of nominating that person best suited for the. times and not be locked into automatic succession of officers either by law or by tradition.

Finally, let me say that the responsibility to see that the above experiences are provided for those who may one day become presidents belongs to the incumbent president. It is absolutely essential that the incumbent president be constantly on the lookout first for board members (or other volunteers) who display presidential potential; and, secondly, to see to it that such people have opportunities for experiences which would prepare them to one day take up this important role.

“HOW WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE PRESIDENT?” said the voice on the telephone and my first response was – well – rather negative. The invitation was a total surprise as our president had served for some fifteen years! (I hasten to add that this occurred a number of years ago and was the incident which first taught me the dangers of allowing presidents to hold office for overly long periods.) He had given no indication of planning to step down and the board was quite unprepared to replace him.

In the circumstances this was hardly the best way in which to seek my willingness to serve and invitations made as casually as this one are often rejected on the spot. Compare this approach to the following.

A few years later, the phone rang again. This time the caller was the board president of an organization on whose board I had served for five or six years. He invited me to join him and the chair of the nominating committee for lunch to discuss the possibility of my being nominated to serve as president. In the conversation, he pointed out that a major reorganization was required – a fact with which, as a board member, I was well acquainted – and that the nominating committee-had concluded that I had the skills necessary to lead it. Since this president would be present at the luncheon, I would have access to the person who had been doing the job for the past three years and this would help me in making my decision. I said that I would be glad to have lunch with them and talk about it.

At the luncheon I learned that the president, having presided over the study which pointed out the need for reorganization, had determined that I was the best choice among the available people. Moreover, he had shared this conclusion with the nominating committee chair and the committee subsequently concurred with the president’s recommendation. My greatest concern was not over my ability to lead the reorganization, but with the fact that a major responsibility of this agency was the raising of funds, annually, for several constituent organizations and the fact that fund raising was not my forte. I said, therefore, that I would be willing to accept the invitation to stand for election as president on the condition that a first vice president be selected who had first rate fund raising credentials. I also indicated a desire to participate in identifying this first vice president. Both conditions were agreed to and an outstanding first vice president was subsequently elected.

I am happy to be able to report that the reorganization was successfully carried out and that our fund drive under the leadership of our first vice president, raised a record amount of money the following year.

The selection of a board president or chairperson is clearly an important matter for any nonprofit organization. The nominating committee must base its decision upon who is the best choice for the job given the present circumstances of the organization and then develop a strategy which will secure this person’s willingness to stand for election. In the second example detailed above, the nominating committee did exactly that. The incumbent president was asked to make the invitation to go to lunch. The objectives for the upcoming year were reviewed for me. The incumbent president was there to answer all of my questions about the magnitude of the commitment I was being asked to make. It was made clear to me that the nominating committee had thought deeply about the choice. The committee’s approach to me was both sensible as well as flattering. Finally, the committee was prepared to hear my views on the selection of a first vice president who would provide a much needed skill that I clearly lacked. Asked in this way, it was an invitation I would have found difficult to decline unless my personal circumstances prohibited my accepting.

Always remember successful board development is a deliberately selective process which must be taken seriously, year round; and effective team building begins with the identification of the nominee for the board presidency.

YOU AS PRESIDENT! One day you may occupy the office of president (your organization may use the titles “chairman” or “chairwoman” of the board). Even if you do not, you will need to work with this important officer. Therefore you should understand the role of the board president and the several activities for which the president is responsible.

The board of-directors should be regarded as a leadership team and the president as its captain. If you are the president, you stir the pot and stimulate activity. As president, you preside at meetings of the board and of the corporation, or of the members. You evaluate all of the board members and other volunteers and deploy them into the most suitable committee assignments. As president, it is your task to lead the board through the organizational year.

Be careful of the word “leadership”, however. A president’s primary role is to get the very best out of the leadership team by making committee assignments, gaining full board participation in discussions that precede decisions, and so forth. The image of the strong, square-jawed “leader” who calls all the shots is, fortunately, dead. Today’s organizations look for full group participation in the board’s decision making process. One of the president’s most important tasks is to make this happen. Of course, there will be occasions when the board president must take a strong position on an issue, but this should be the exception, not the rule.

Now let’s take a look at some of your presidential activities:

  • You take the lead in the orientation of new board members.
  • You evaluate all of the players and make suitable committee assignments accordingly.
  • You delegate what can properly be delegated in order to spread the workload and provide leadership experience for others.
  • You must plan ahead and know well in advance what must be done – and when – for the full year ahead.
  • You must make contact at least monthly, usually before board meetings, with all of the committee chairs to ensure that objectives are being met and to know their needs at the upcoming board meeting.
  • You must meet with the executive director and plan the agenda for the next board meeting.
  • You must preside at meetings of the board and of the corporation.
  • You must constantly stimulate the board’s leadership development efforts.
  • You must continue to evaluate all of the players in order to know who is performing well and who poorly, thereby predicting the needs of the board for the years ahead.
  • You play a leading role, if not the leading role in fund raising efforts.
  • You must represent the voluntary leadership of the organization to groups within the community as well as to the community at large.

John W. Nason, in The Nature of Trusteeship puts it very well when he says, “…the chairman must moderate as well as lead – a healer of breaches, harmonizer of divisiveness, sometimes cajoler and, when necessary, a disciplinarian. To the public the chairman is the symbol of the board and very often its spokesman. Within the board the chairman sets the example for the other trustees by his or her personal performance.” And it is this last point, that of setting the example, that in the end is probably the most important.

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