In the association trinity of technology, people, and processes, people are the most essential and perplexing element. When these people are your chapter leaders, “perplexing” can be a sign of trouble.
Chapter leaders are amazing humans. They take on huge volunteer responsibilities in service to their chapter. But humans are fallible creatures too, and sometimes these amazing individuals struggle in their leadership roles.
So far, in this series of posts about chapters in crisis, we’ve covered:
- Financial mismanagement
- Financial fraud
- Compliance issues
- Data privacy
- Website disasters
Now, let’s turn to some common chapter leadership problems. We assume in this post that chapters are subsidiaries, a situation that brings more risk to National, but also supposedly provides more control. Even if your components are independent, you’ll benefit from the advice we share.
Chapter crisis: chapter leaders in trouble
A chapter’s success is dependent upon the competency of their officers and board. These leaders set the tone for the chapter’s culture, programs, and membership experience. When the wrong leader is in office or when a leader is struggling in office, the impact can be devastating.
The chapter leader isn’t suited for the job
Sometimes a chapter leader lacks the skills or aptitude for the job. They’re not “leadership material.”
- Unskilled: They’re in over their head, missing deadlines and making bad decisions. Because they haven’t developed the necessary leadership experience or skills, they’re frustrating and embarrassing fellow officers, directors, and committee chairs.
- Egocentric: Some people love the title but aren’t crazy about the work. They bristle at advice, don’t give credit, and don’t listen. In the company of fellow leaders, you can feel the tension in the air.
The chapter leader tries to do it all
At the opposite end of the spectrum, you have the leader who wants to be the chapter superhero. Possibly a control freak, they take on too much, hardly ever delegating. But, surprisingly, they get it all done because they revel in being super busy.
However, this is a recipe for burnout. What’s worse, the leader doesn’t delegate, so they aren’t training successors as they should. They aren’t spreading the benefits of volunteer leadership because they hoard everything to themselves. If the work was shared, the chapter could offer more programs.
The chapter leader doesn’t have enough time
Some chapter leaders didn’t expect their new role to be so time-consuming. They’re not willing or can’t dedicate that much of their life to chapter duties. Or, life got in the way: perhaps they started a family or got a promotion.
What happens? Leaders don’t meet or communicate regularly, decisions are postponed, programming is meh, and administrative work isn’t getting done.
When leaders can’t or don’t do a good job, it’s bad for everyone. Leadership morale plummets, volunteers lose interest, and members are disappointed. Programs suffer and administrative work is put on the back burner—which could lead to an entirely different crisis.
How to deal with a chapter leadership crisis
It’s better to coach a leader and turn a bad situation into a teachable moment, than to remove a leader, unless the situation is dire. Ideally, start with a leader-to-leader conversation, not a staff-to-leader conversation. Ask a past chapter leader, someone whom the leader knows and respects, to provide advice.
Setting up the conversation is a delicate matter. What brought the situation to your attention? Do you need to protect your source? Is there evidence of incompetence? If the “coach” can point to missed deadlines, decrease in chapter activity, unusual actions/decisions, public or known disagreements, or complaints, then the conversation may decrease a bit in its level of awkwardness.
After this initial conversation, go ahead and check in with the leader. Ask questions, listen, offer advice, and make a plan to get things back on track. You may have to arrange help from other leaders and/or members and recommend ways for them to share responsibilities. Or, suggest it might be time they cede the office to someone else.
Remember, when someone’s ego feels threatened, the fences start going up. You need to stroke their ego while appealing to both their emotional and logical mind.
- Treat them as equals.
- Acknowledge their service.
- Demonstrate your empathy.
- Gently remind them of their fiduciary duties.
- Learn about any fears and concerns, and alleviate their worries.
If the situation doesn’t improve, you may have to consider more extreme measures. Do the bylaws say anything about officer/director removal? National’s ability to remove leaders will depend on your relationship (subsidiary or independent) with the component.
How to prevent a chapter leadership crisis
Vet prospective leaders
Leadership candidates should pass the muster of a nominating committee or board. However, chapter leaders should beware the risk of picking people “like us.” They must be open and objective, and only pick people who have the necessary skills and aptitude for the role.
Leaders should know what they’re getting into and what’s expected of them. Encourage them to discuss the new role with previous leaders so they understand the time commitment required as well as the pros and cons of the job. Ideally, they should serve in chapter roles that prepare them for the next position or shadow the leader ahead of them on the leadership ladder.
Provide continual leadership training
Leadership training isn’t a “one and done” event. Support existing and emerging chapter leaders with training resources throughout the year.
- Evergreen online training, such as webinars, videos, and recordings of past leadership conference sessions or workshops
- In-person leadership training at chapter leadership conferences
- Weekly or biweekly leadership newsletters
- Chapter leader online community
- Monthly chapter leader calls or web meetings to discuss common issues. You can also use these calls to discuss prickly leadership problems in a general way without having to call a particular leader out for their behavior.
Encourage chapters to invest in their own training too. The Association for Corporate Growth incentivizes their chapters to budget for leadership development by providing a match for each chapter that does.
Teach leaders to delegate work
Don’t allow martyr leaders. Show chapter leaders how to share their work with fellow members. This practice must become part of the leadership culture. Contribution and service is a membership benefit. Leaders must share these volunteer opportunities, not hoard them.
Relieve the administrative burden
Assess the reporting, data entry, and administrative processes that you require from busy chapter leaders. Consider implementing technology that makes it easier for chapters to share data and dues with National, submit reports, and handle financial reconciliation.
Establish last-resort policies
Chapter bylaws should define why and how officers and directors can be removed. Every year, chapter officers and directors should sign a code of conduct, conflict of interest, and whistleblower policy.
You can help chapter leaders stay out of trouble by identifying the right people for leadership and providing the training and resources they need. But how do you find these people?
That’s the topic of our next post: chapter leadership succession planning.