Sunday, January 17, 2016

NFL. Rams. Association Governance.

All association professionals need to remember this mantra: “It’s their organization not yours!”

Last week, the National Football League’s Board of Governors voted to authorize the (Cleveland/Los Angeles/St. Louis) Rams to move (again) to Los Angeles. The decision upset fans in St. Louis ... along with San Diego and Oakland (other franchises seeking to move.)

An association colleague (St. Louis native and former Rams ticket holder)sent me the following note saying, “for your next blog.”

  • Boiled down to the basics, the way the Rams-NFL deal went down is not unlike the ways things often go down in our line of work. Like Roger Goodell, the NFL Commissioner, I am the paid staff guy who "reports" to a Board of Directors. Roger reports to 32, I report to 19 owners. It's a political job. 
  • The association staff (me/Roger Goodell) gave an important matter regarding one of the league's members over to a committee of members (NFL Relocation Committee). When the Relocation Committee chose an outcome that the staff (Goodell) didn't like (the Carson proposal backed by San Diego and Oakland, which would have kept owner Stan Kroenke and the Rams in St. Louis), the NFL staff stepped in at the 11th hour and got involved to manage the process. The actual vote in the meeting room disregarded the committee's 5-1 recommendation ... the first vote favored Kroenke (Rams) was 20-12 which was four votes short of the required 24. The owners broke for dinner where – apparently – everyone was subjected to some pressured lobbying from the league staff and some owners. Later, the second vote was 30-2 in favor of the Rams moving. 
  • Why didn't the NFL staff like the committee's 5-1 recommendation in the first place? Could be personal, but more likely could be some powerful owners pulling Goodell's strings. Goodell reports to all 32, but like me, while all 32 have votes, some carry more weight than others. Just the nature of the associations.
Having lived in St. Louis for 30+ years, I can understand my colleague’s frustrations. But, as an Ohio native, I recognize that the Rams started in Cleveland and moved to LA back in the 1940s.

Throughout my association career, I’ve heard association professionals proclaim, “The board makes policy; the staff implements policy.”

What resonates in my colleague’s statement; however, is the role of association executives in board decisions.

In reality, the relationship between the association board and the association executive depends on the board and the exec.

Here are three “relationship types” that I’ve witnessed:
  1. The association exec let’s the board do its thing. This exec sits back and waits for the board to act.
  2. The association exec influences the board from behind the scenes. It may be through position papers they provide. Or, it could be in subtle conversations with key officers and board members.
  3. Some execs are more assertive (aggressive?) and outwardly offer “guidance” during board deliberations. 
Anyone of these styles works ... depending on the organization.
  • Some boards may wonder what they are paying for if the association exec offers no direction, comments or ideas.
  • Some boards may feel “manipulated” by a “behind the scenes” executive.
  • Some boards may feel an assertive executive is “crossing the line” and getting into board work.
The challenge for the association professional is determining the desired relationship. And, recognizing that an ever changing board may require a change in the exec’s approaches.

PS.  The other issue:  how do committees feel when the Board overturns their work and recommendation?  This can frustrate committees and lead to serious governance issues.

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