Before creating and selling my association management company, I served in multiple capacities for a very large ($40 million budget with 200+ staff) international association finishing as the association’s Deputy CEO.
After 16 years on the job, the association’s board asked my CEO to leave and, as his deputy, they said I could leave too!
Given the success we had built and my total commitment to the association, being fired was a shock.
I still remember Chuck Rumbarger telling me: “Steve, it doesn’t matter what you’ve accomplished. As your tenure stay with the same group, your friends come and go but your enemies accumulate.”
Being fired provided me “lessons” to share with other CEOs or association executives who may be facing similar situations: a board that is growing increasingly negative about your performance or a board that becomes intrusive in management details.
In the last couple of months, a couple of CEOs have asked my opinions about what is going on with their work and their boards.
Here are three lessons you may want to keep in mind when your time comes (and, as Rumbarger told me, “it will eventually come time to leave”):
Number 1: it is their organization not yours. But, it is your career not theirs.
- As your tenure increases, you often find that none of the current board were directors when you were hired.
- At that point, some boards get nervous and do strange things. (Ours told the CEO he must be paying people too much because staff turnover was too low. Go figure, low turnover became a bad thing!)
- When relations with your board deteriorate, you need to make that difficult decision that your career comes before their organization. That is the time to change jobs before you lose your job.
- The Tuesday after I was fired, I had an interview with an executive recruiter for a CEO position with a large regional association. As soon as I shared with him that my boss and I had been fired he said “Oh, so you’d be willing to take a lower salary!”
- While working hard and loyally for your current association, always remember Lesson No. 1. That means looking out for yourself.
- Knowing Lesson No. 2, don’t wait until it is too late. Get out before you get fired.
- While at an outplacement office during my “time between successes,” I learned a valuable lesson from one of my fellow unemployed execs. One day he shared that he has just turned down a job offer. “But,” I exclaimed, “you don’t have a job!” His response was instructive: “No job is better than the wrong job. If I took that position, I’d probably be back here too soon because it really isn’t the right thing for me.”
- Over the last 20 or so years, I’ve watched friends take “the wrong job” and they either got “stuck” where they couldn’t get into the next level or where they left within a year.
- To avoid this, develop the criteria for what you consider the “ideal” job. Put it in writing.
- When you interview, probe the association leaders. Dig deeply into their expectations for the new CEO. Find out why the position is open. Check the association’s financial health (if they don’t share financials, run away quickly!).
Enjoy the ride while it lasts as my Boy Scout experience taught: be prepared!