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FORUM MAGAZINE – November 2001

The politics of being a CEO

"I Love being a CEO," a fellow association executive gushed at a recent meeting. "I just don't like the politics."

My colleague will soon find that she is in the wrong line of work. A successful CEO must be a master politician, deftly practicing political finesse with board members, committee volunteers, vendors, media, government officials, and anyone else who is touched by the association's activities. You don't have to be slick or deceitful to be a good politician. You don't have to be a back-slapper or a brown-noser. What you must have is accurate radar, learning what people are thinking, knowing how to prompt them to act in a particular fashion, and nimbly thwarting destructive actions.

Your association's success, as well as your individual success, relies primarily on your ability to exercise political skill with your board of directors. Here are a few ways to do that:

  1. Know your job. Focus on the big picture, not the little details. Your job is to get results -- more members, more revenue, more favorable publicity, legislative victories, etc. The people who report to you (if there are any) should tackle the details. Your job is to acquire and manage the resources to achieve overall, organizational success.
  2. Establish yourself as a leader. You're the one who will pay for your association's bad decisions. So, be sure to formulate a vision for the association's future, devise a plan to achieve that vision, and articulate that vision to your board. Advocate it formally through board and committee reports, planning sessions, etc., and informally through conversations before and after meetings and at social functions or other relaxed events. The board should become confident in your judgment and be willing to embrace your vision.
  3. Talk to board members. Don't be awed or intimidated by them. And don't look down on them, either. Talk and joke with them as you would anyone else. Discuss personal things when you have the chance -- children, theater, sports -- whatever common ground you have. They'll know you as a person, which will make it easier for them to respect you as a professional.
  4. Be prepared. Anticipate questions the board will ask and collect the information necessary to back up your decisions. Don't overwhelm them with documents, but have data ready for your use. Observe each board member's behavior and be sure to address issues of individual concern before and during meetings.
  5. Get your ducks in a row. Don't unveil a new idea at a board meeting. Discuss it informally first, then usher it through the committee process. You should know the outcome of the board vote before it happens.
  6. Identify the opinion leaders. Who are the most assertive board members? Who do others listen to? Who are they afraid to debate? Who can kill a proposal? You must understand the group dynamics of your board so you'll know who to enlist in support of a policy decision and whom to be prepared to battle when they oppose you.
  7. Whisper loudly in their ears. Aggressively enlisting support for your proposal may sometimes backfire if you are seen as acting more like a board member than a staff person. Start by suggesting it to the chairman of the board, who is often most able to win over recalcitrant peers. Share your idea with board members whom you expect to be receptive. If they are receptive, they can bring the issue to the board themselves, and you can provide non-partisan expertise in support of what is now their proposal.
  8. Be diplomatic. Never lose your temper. Never make personal attacks. Never question someone's motives (even if they deserve questioning). Always assume everyone is working toward the same positive ends.
  9. Keep the entire board well informed. When a significant issue needs to be aired, let the whole board know about it. Written memos and e-mails are best, since they can be sent simultaneously to everyone and they leave a written record of your effort. When necessary, speak personally with the board member(s) closest to the issue. If your board chair is a hands-on, micromanager type, call or write him or her, but copy the entire board, the executive committee, or the most appropriate group within the board. If an issue pertains to a specific aspect of association business, communicate with the committee chair and copy the chairman of the board if necessary. If the chairman takes action without board approval, remind him to bring the issue to the board. Tactfully make clear that you can't work on projects until they receive board approval.
  10. Be quick to recognize success and failure. When things are going well, let people know. Communicate successes in regular reports. Send e-mail alerts -- "Just wanted to let you know…" -- that tout legislative victories, financial achievements, or the crossing of other milestones. But don't wait for the board to tell you when you've messed up. When things are not going well, come up with a remedy and communicate it to the board. Be sure they know that you are in control of the problem, not crippled by it.

Another fellow CEO was recently summoned to an emergency board meeting and fired. He was given two hours to clean out his office so his replacement could move in. The board had advertised, interviewed, and hired a new CEO without the former's knowledge. Maybe the fired CEO didn't like the politics of the job, either.

David M. Patt, CAE has been a CEO for 18 years, the last 11 for the Chicago Area Runners Association. He may be reached at (312) 666-9836 or

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