Past Presidents: Friends, Foes, or Both?

Past Presidents: Friends, Foes, or Both?

By Mark Engle and Dave Bergeson

 “We have had great experiences with our past presidents. The expectations of what happens after service on the board is well understood and most past presidents don't get involved or try to influence after they have served.” — CEO of a large professional society

“I just don’t understand it. I would expect that of all people, our past presidents, who worked so hard, and gave so much, would be invested and supportive of moving the association forward. Instead, they are being obstructive, feel entitled, and are a source of constant headaches.” — CEO of a large professional society

These are actual quotes from real association executives, speaking on their very different experiences with the past presidents* of their association or society.

The reality is these quotes could also conceivably have been made by the same CEO speaking about the same group of past presidents at different times in the life cycle of their association or society. The past presidents of an association or society should—and in many cases do—represent a great opportunity for wise counsel, support, and advancement of association or society strategic goals.

And yet, it is unfortunately very common for one or more past presidents to be a significant challenge for the current board and staff, a distraction of attention, and an impediment to change.

We have seen an increasing number of challenges regarding the influence of past presidents, affectionately referred to as past illustrious leaders (PILs), on association governance.

Here are just a few examples:

  • Scenario 1: For several years the board has rated itself poorly in terms of its composition, especially in the domains of size and diversity. They created a task force, which made recommendations for changing the composition of the board. The board accepted the report. In seeking membership approval to amend the bylaws for the refined structure, a few past presidents were vocally opposed to the amendment and the proposed change in board composition. In fact, the past presidents organized together to defeat the work of the task force and the board, effectively perpetuating the lack of diversity on the board and leadership.
  • Scenario 2: The association’s nominations committee consisted solely of the seven most recent past presidents. Steeped in tradition and suffering from similar world views and experiences, this nominating committee has produced leadership that over the years looks, sounds, and acts the same as previous years. Early careerists of course perceived this association to have a “closed culture” in terms of developing leadership, likely because it is, in fact, a “closed culture” in developing leadership.
  • Scenario 3: By policy, past presidents are included in the distribution of board meeting materials and invited to attend all board meetings. During board meetings, they were seated in a row on a riser behind the board and loomed large both spatially and with respect to decision making by the board. Board surveys revealed that the presence of past presidents significantly influenced and constrained the discussion of the current board of directors. Laboring under traditions and entitlements, the board did nothing to mitigate this influence, and discussions, decision making, and culture continued to suffer.

Survey Says: Both

To examine patterns and practices in the management of past presidents in professional associations and societies, we sent a 17-question survey to 127 association and society CEOs and executive directors. We received 71 responses, resulting in a survey response rate of 56%. The results of this survey illustrated both the challenges and the opportunities associated with this highly influential group.

Here is some of what we found:

  • While 80% of respondents indicated that it is rare for one or more past presidents—other than the immediate past president—to attend board meetings, more than 14% indicated that all past presidents are invited to attend board meetings, either through courtesy or policy.
  • When asked to rank, on a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), the extent to which past presidents (other than the immediate past president) helped to achieve the goals of the association or society, 20% ranked them under 5. Twelve percent ranked them at 9 or 10.
  • When asked to rank past presidents on a scale from 1 to 10 on the degree to which they were supportive of change, 29% ranked them as a 4 or less. Six percent ranked them as a 9 or 10.
  • When asked what percentage of the past presidents were supportive, not at all supportive, or relatively indifferent, on average respondents indicated that 47% were very supportive, 26% not at all supportive, and 31% indifferent.
  • Forty-five percent of respondents indicated that the association or society does not have a formalized past president’s council. Twenty-six percent of respondents indicated that they have a past president’s council that meets, but primarily for social/recognition reasons; and nine percent indicated that they have a past president’s council that has a formal role in governance.
  • Thirty-four percent of respondents have had an issue in which past presidents organized together against board-supported change.

In the survey, we asked respondents to comment on what is working well and what is not working well with past presidents. For the former, respondents often commented on the value of their counsel, particularly when it is supportive, transparent, and as part of a structured task force and/or specific ask. Regarding the latter, respondents often pointed to past presidents being resistant to changes, having a strong attachment to legacy programs, and having a lack of understanding regarding the current strategic environment of the association.

Authority, Influence, and Responsibility

As we consider the role of past presidents, it is useful to distinguish between three key elements of association governance: Authority, Responsibility, and Influence.

Authority is easily identified as it is codified in the corporate documents of an association such as bylaws and/or policy and procedures. It is typical, for example, for these documents to clarify which body has the authority to amend the bylaws, the roles of the officers, what responsibilities can be delegated to whom (as permitted), etc.

Influence can be more difficult to discern and is often the hidden element that either advances or undermines organizational performance. What role do the past presidents play in the realm of influence within the organization? Even if no authority is formally bestowed on them in your corporate documents, do they in fact have considerable influence on discussions, decisions, leadership development, and other aspects of association governance and advancement?

In , Esq (), he clarified that if a past president of an association is no longer on the board and no longer an officer, they do not owe any fiduciary duties to the association. That being said, they are bound to continue to keep confidential information confidential past their term on the board. Despite this lack of fiduciary responsibilities, Tenenbaum cautions that the reality is that past presidents often nonetheless have significant influence, respect, and often a louder voice than other members. Given this influence, there are also additional potential risks regarding apparent authority with past presidents.

Recommendations and Best Practices

So, given that there are unique opportunities, challenges, and risks regarding past presidents in associations, what are our recommendations regarding strategies and best practices for working with them?

  1. Practice effective and meaningful recognition of past presidents. Many survey respondents indicated that recognition in the form of ribbons, standing for recognition during general sessions, hotel room amenities, and other small gestures are not only well deserved but also well appreciated. Many associations and societies have a lunch or breakfast for past presidents at their annual conference, which serves as a mechanism for both recognizing past presidents and informing them of association activities. When these lunches or breakfasts are successful, past presidents will often attend conference specifically because of these events.
  2. Phase out or at least de-emphasize entitlements. We recognize that there can be a fine line between recognition and entitlements. We have no concerns with offering a complimentary conference registration to past presidents if it is financially responsible and feasible for the association to do so. We are shocked and dismayed, however, at some of the past president entitlements we see among some associations and societies. It is troubling, for example, to see associations and societies pay for travel and lodging for all past presidents to association conferences and events. We understand that these entitlements are offered with the best intentions. But in addition to the potentially significant financial effects of these entitlements, they can also become a significant distraction to staff and board attention. We have seen a lot of staff and volunteer time and angst resulting from failing to execute or recognize stated or unstated entitlements and traditions.
  3. Communicate with past presidents separately and differently than you communicate with other members. Some CEOs and associations have an email list of past presidents that they use to communicate association issues a few times per year. When past presidents are in the dark about association issues, not only can they make incorrect assumptions about what the association is doing and why they are doing it, but they also can feel disrespected about being seemingly forgotten or not valued. Have a clear mechanism and expectations for how and when past presidents can share their opinions, preferably on an individual basis rather than as a group.
  4. If you will be proposing a significant change to the association, engage with past presidents early in the process. Past presidents are highly influential and can make or break the acceptance of a new initiative. Cross the past presidents bridge early in change management. Many associations, when they are proposing a significant governance change, will ask a few well-respected past presidents to engage with the other past presidents and be ambassadors and enablers of this change.
  5. Don’t avoid using the skills and experience of past presidents when appropriate. Many CEOs have had great luck strategically placing past presidents on task forces in which their skills and experience are relevant to the charter of the task force. Through the respect afforded to them, and their experience in association matters, past presidents can be an important facilitator of change. Other CEOs who responded to our survey wrote about using past presidents as an informal sounding board, often reaching out to some of them with one-on-one calls as issues emerge.
  6. Have an offboarding plan. Many associations have an onboarding plan in which training is provided and expectations are set regarding their upcoming service on the board. We suggest that associations also have an offboarding plan for outgoing directors and in particular past presidents. This offboarding program can help to set expectations for what directors and officers should anticipate after their service on the board and can familiarize them with tools for input and other ways to serve the association. This offboarding program should also include a one-on-one conversation with the outgoing director or officer, not only to set expectations and encourage other forms of participation, but also to learn what was good and what was not so good about their term on the board. It’s also a good opportunity to remind them of their duty of confidentiality and their role as an ambassador for the association.
  7. No formal governance role. Finally—and perhaps most importantly—we do NOT recommend that the past presidents, other than the immediate past president, have a formal role in the governance of the association. Our survey indicates that about 35% of the associations or societies surveyed have a past presidents’ council. These councils are often set up to leverage the experiences of the past presidents in order to inform board discussions and facilitate effective governance. In fact, we see the reverse happen when past presidents’ councils have a formal and/or informal role in governance. In our survey of CEOs, those associations that have a past presidents’ council are more likely to rank their past presidents as not contributing to reaching the goals of the association. Similarly, those associations that invite all their past presidents to attend all board meetings are more likely to rank their past presidents as not contributing to reaching the goals of the association.

Past presidents, past chairs, and other past illustrious leaders are among the treasures of an association or society. In many ways, successful associations and societies stand on the shoulders of their past leaders, benefiting from their hard work, thoughtfulness, and vision. But that doesn’t mean that they should continue to have a significant impact or input on current association governance.

Times change, environments change, and it’s important that leadership changes as well. We know that one of the most important jobs of an association CEO is to effectively manage change and make sure that everyone on the team is in the best position to positively influence success. Past presidents are a hugely influential part of this team that require respect, recognition, clarity, and effective management.

*Here we use the term “past presidents” in a broad sense to also include past chairs of the board. Many of the issues we write about here can also be used to consider in an even broader sense the role of past illustrious leaders (PILs).

Mark Engle, DM CAE FASAE, is a principal of 911 who specializes in board governance and strategy. Dave Bergeson, PhD CAE, is vice president of client relations.

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