Lessons from my association leadership transitions

transitions_4141130245_1b07542dfb_oIn June I’m stepping down as President and Executive Director of edACCESS, an association I co-founded 25 years ago. This is the third time I’ve left an association leadership position, and I’m going to share some valuable lessons learned from each transition.

The Solar Association of Vermont
Although the rapid growth of the solar energy industry may appear to be a recent phenomenon, North American boomers will remember the late 70’s and early 80’s when the 1979 “oil-crisis” hit and interest in alternative energy generation soared. I moved to Vermont in 1978, joined the management of a fledging solar hot water manufacturing business and, after a couple of years, helped to found the Solar Association of Southern Vermont, which eventually became the Solar Association of Vermont (SAVE!) We’d hold monthly meetings in the tiny rural town of Brattleboro and sixty people would show up. SAVE went on to produce many of the earliest alternative energy conferences in the United States.

But in the 80’s Reagan was elected—removing the solar collectors that a colleague of mine had installed on the White House—and by the mid-80’s oil prices had returned to pre-crisis levels. Interest in solar energy dried up and SAVE meeting attendance shrank to a few people.

What did we do?

We shut SAVE down.

We held a big end-of-the-association party, inviting everyone who had been part of this brief flowering of community interest, a flowering that, unbeknownst to us, would set the stage for the meteoric rise of solar photovoltaic systems in the ’00s.

Lessons: As time passes, the key motivations for an association’s existence can transmute, or even disappear. Working with hundreds of associations over the years, I’ve seen some continue to struggle on long after their mission has become somewhat or largely irrelevant. Check regularly that your association’s mission remains congruent with its circumstances. If not, either change your mission or your operations to stay relevant, or, if necessary close up shop (not forgetting to celebrate all your good work if you do!)

A local association
After a number of years serving as a board member of a local chapter of a national association, I was asked to become president. The national was recommending that chapters fundamentally change the way they operated, a change I agreed with. I told the board that I would happily accept the presidency if we allocated the resources needed to make this transformation happen, arguing that the change would improve our financial resources by allowing us to significantly increase our community fundraising.

Unfortunately, the board refused to allocate the resources I requested.

Consequently I reluctantly turned down the presidency and left the board, as I did not want to lead an association whose board did not support the vision I had for its future.

Looking back on the subsequent evolution of the association, I don’t regret my decision, though I wish I’d been better able to convince the board that my approach was a better alternative to staying with the status quo.

Lessons: Before taking an association leadership role, share your vision for the future and make sure the rest of the association buys into it. If they don’t, don’t take the job!

edACCESS
In 1991 I co-founded edACCESS, a 501(c)6 that supports information technology staff at small schools. Although I had a professional interest in the organization’s mission for many years and served initially for free, as my consulting focus shifted increasingly towards meeting design I moved into a paid part-time executive director role.

In May, I decided to give up the position, with the goal of making the handover to new leadership as smooth as possible. I announced my intent at the June annual conference and offered to stay for a year in a supervisory role, coaching new leadership as needed.

The existing leadership handled my announcement very well. I told them I would provide any desired assistance and advice in determining changes in leadership, but felt it was important not to be intimately involved in the decisions that needed to be made. I was gratified by the response, which to me reflects the fundamental health of the association I helped to create.

As I write this, the transition is going well. The full year’s notice will allow me to take new and existing leadership through an entire life cycle of core association process. I am confident that the association will be in good shape when I leave.

Lessons: I have seen (and experienced) a number of associations that were severely stressed by the sudden departure of leadership and the total lack of any leadership succession planning. To be honest, edACCESS is small enough that we did not have a formal plan in place, and I am glad I have the flexibility to offer what will hopefully be sufficient time and support to allow the association to continue effectively carrying out its mission. Don’t assume that key association staff or board members, will stay with the organization for ever, or give you ample warning before they depart! Pre-emergency planning for leadership, staffing, and succession will minimize the turmoil that can be generated without warning when key personnel leave unexpectedly.

Have you made leadership transitions in an association? What lessons have you learned that others may value? Share in the comments!

Photo attribution: Flickr user by_andy