The Case for Board Member Term Limits

I’m not afraid to admit when I’m wrong. I’ve been on the wrong side of an important association board practice for many years.

Because I had the good fortune to work with two exceptional board leaders and clients – Harry Mason with the SCSI Trade Association (STA), and Marlis Humphrey with the former Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) Forum – I saw that each organization would be denied Harry’s and Marlis’s talents as board leaders if term limits had been in effect.

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Leadership Boost for an Underperforming Organization


The board of directors (board) of the California Association of Flower Growers & Shippers (CalFlowers) had become a management committee where the board president, a volunteer member of the board, functioned as the de facto chief staff executive (CEO is the title they use in place of executive director).  The arrangement had been in effect for about eight years.  Shortly following the 2008 to 2010 recession the association had a revenue shortfall and decided to forego hiring a CEO to manage their staff and operations.

In 2012 the association had corrected their revenue challenges and realized they could afford to hire a CEO.  In that same year they also engaged an association expert to evaluate their association and future needs.  The consultant’s assessment was somewhat grave.  He concluded that the association did not reach the thresholds for even simple adequacy in any of the 10 performance areas he used.

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The Board’s Role Hiring Staff

Boards of directors have one, and only one, position they are responsible for hiring:  the chief staff executive (CSE).  Most often the title of this position is the executive director, and sometimes chief executive officer.  Regardless the actual title, if this position is the chief staff position to which all other staff positions and contractors report, then this hire is the board’s responsibility.  All other hires are the responsibility of the CSE.

There can be many rationalizations board members cite for exceptions to this practice, but none that I’ve encountered in my career that satisfy the practical realities of a well-functioning organization.  What are those realities?

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When to Engage an External Interim Executive Director

An executive director-level change in any organization can be disruptive to staff and board members. Uncertainty looms large and with the uncertainty comes anxiety.  With anticipation and planning, such an important change doesn’t have to be painful.

Organizations with a current strategic plan can ease this transition, especially if the strategic plan includes a succession plan for the executive director.  If your organization lacks a succession plan, especially when confronted with the sudden loss of your executive director, it can be traumatic, but it doesn’t have to be.  In fact, it can be an opportunity.

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Future Proofing Your Board

A timeline is a common tool used to orient boards of directors to their unique responsibilities.

When we conduct board orientations, we characterize the organization’s next 12 months as belonging to the chief staff officer, also known as the executive director.  Once the board has approved a plan, priorities, and a budget, it is up to the chief staff officer and his or her staff to execute it.

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