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Vol. 30, No. 4

Flexibility and focus: Balancing presidential goals with the bar's overall plan

by Robert J. Derocher

When Alan Bookman became president of the Florida Bar last summer, he made no announcements of any new or personal initiatives for his presidential year.

“I didn’t think it would be appropriate to create a new program,” he says. “I’m a big believer in maintaining the course of the strategic plan.”

At about the same time, Michael Colombo assumed the helm of the North Carolina Bar Association, saying he wanted to establish an equal access to justice committee, while also pushing to increase membership in bar sections and improve reporting and recording of pro bono activities.

“Goals and initiatives are important,” he says. “There are lots of good ideas that pop up every year.”

So, should a new president bring new initiatives? Or should he or she stay the strategic course? Advocates say either approach can work, but each requires a careful balance of flexibility and planning—not only for the new bar president, but also for the bar’s executive director and staff who will be working closely with the new leader.

Avoiding the zigzag effect

Like the tide, it is virtually inevitable that a bar association welcomes in a new president every 12 months. Many other nonprofit, volunteer-driven associations do much the same thing—and it drives Harrison Coerver crazy.

“The Achilles heel of a membership organization is the 12-month changing of leadership,” says Coerver, an association management consultant based in Dennis, Mass. “You need continuity and consistency, and you need to have a direction—and that’s hard to do when you’re changing presidents every year.”

Another virtual inevitability—also detracting from continuity and consistency, Coerver says—has been the president’s initiatives, a set of personal goals that the president hopes to accomplish in his or her time in office. “It’s tradition,” Coerver notes. “They feel compelled to do it.”

What often happens, Coerver says, is the creation of “a zigzag effect,” with one president “zigging” in one direction and the next president “zagging” in another direction, sometimes with no real connection between initiatives. “At the end of five or 10 years, what do you have to show for it?” he asks. “A lot of these initiatives are valid. They’re not wrong, but how do they contribute to [the bar’s] long-term mission or vision?”

In his work with bars in Florida, Arizona, Colorado, and other states, Coerver is stressing what he thinks is a more cohesive approach to the bar presidency, one that places more emphasis on the development of and adherence to a three- to five-year strategic plan. It’s a trend Coerver and others are seeing more often in the bar world—perhaps following the lead of other nonprofit associations—as well as the for-profit sector, where advance strategic planning is considered a vital part of doing business.

“I think the new president has to look at [his or her] term in the context of the preceding president and the next president,” he says. “Anything of consequence is highly unlikely to happen in a 12-month span. It’s like running a relay race.”

Bookman agrees. As an example, he points to a campaign launched in 2003 by former Florida Bar President Tod Aronowitz to improve the image of lawyers. The campaign, rather than popping up suddenly, absorbing resources for 12 months, and then fading away, grew out of the bar’s strategic plan and remains vital.

That sense of continuity is one reason Bookman shares many of his bar e-mails with president-elect Hank Coxe. “A lot of issues don’t just come and go within a bar year,” Bookman explains. “This isn’t a one-person job.”

The Lafayette Parish (La.) Bar Association called on the ABA’s Division for Bar Services five years ago to help develop a more cohesive strategic planning strategy. “We’re in the second year of our three-year plan, and I’m the middle guy,” notes bar President Kenny Oliver.

Having a strategic plan in place to guide successive presidents was crucial in helping the bar and its members survive the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina, Oliver says. Bar leadership was able to address critical hurricane-related issues—such as a budget shortfall triggered by the state of Louisiana’s decision to delay CLE requirements—secure in the knowledge that the plan would not be abandoned.

Based on the plan, the bar is now moving forward on projects designed to grow membership through an enhanced public relations campaign. Oliver says it is an important effort that will likely continue after his term of office ends this summer.

The emphasis on strategic planning also plays well with many bar executive directors, who have often found themselves trying to resolve conflicts between a bar president’s personal initiatives and the overall goals of the bar.

“When there’s a written plan, it makes it easy for me. Everyone knows where the resources are going,” says Leandra Lewis, executive director of the Maricopa County (Ariz.) Bar Association. “We talk about strategic planning every month at our executive committee meeting. It’s a great ongoing evaluation process.”

The role of president and ED

Another trend that has become more prevalent at other nonprofit associations and that is just starting to take root at bar associations, Coerver says, is a changing view of the role of the association president and the executive director.

Increasingly, he says, bars are keeping a clearer sense of who’s who. The bar president is seen as the chair of the board of directors, handling oversight and guidance for the organization, along with the board. The executive director’s role is one of hands-on management, which includes some tasks that, without such clarity, presidents might be tempted to take on themselves.

Jack Harkness, executive director of the Florida Bar, puts it this way: “[Board members] look to me to handle the day-to-day operations,” he says. “I do the hiring and firing of all the staff.”

Having a clearly defined role for herself and for the president suits Lewis just fine. She has been executive director of the Maricopa bar for just over two years, after a decade at a non-law-related nonprofit and work as an auditor and finance professional.

“I talked to a person who said, ‘I’m giving up my practice for a year to become [bar] president,’ and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Why? Use your staff,’ ” she says. “I’m not somebody’s administrative assistant. I am trying to manage a professional organization.”

Jay Zweig, immediate past president of the Maricopa bar, says he did his part to keep the roles distinct. “For me, it was very important not to micromanage the staff or the board,” he notes. “The executive director doesn’t work for me. She works for the board of directors. She and her staff are hired to run the organization. You have to let them do their job.”

That approach, says Chuck Turner, executive director of the Colorado and Denver bar associations, is reflective of the evolving nature of associations, and helps maintain stability. “Bars are business entities,” he says. “They shouldn’t be changing directions every year.”

Is there any room for personal goals?

But just because there is a solid, forward-looking strategic plan in place, it doesn’t mean that a bar president can’t develop and advocate projects and ideas that pique their interests, many say. It’s just that they will likely stick pretty close to the plan, and perhaps look for ways to tie in these more personal projects.

In Lafayette, Oliver has been working on an initiative to allow bar members to bypass security screenings at local courthouses. That is related to his push to grow the bar’s membership. “Nobody said I couldn’t do other things,” he notes.

In Florida, Bookman has been working to help strengthen the bonds between the state and local bars, as well as between the bar’s leadership and its committees.

In Maricopa County, Zweig made pitches to improve the bar’s fiscal stature and beef up its legal referral service program—both of which jibed with the bar’s strategic plan.

Allan Head, executive director of the North Carolina Bar Association, knows the importance of strategic planning, but thinks it’s possible to be too rigid and squelch good ideas.

“Your volunteers need to be in charge, and your president needs to lead,” he says. “They bring new challenges, new ideas, and new enthusiasm each year. You don’t want to stifle that. The association shouldn’t put the same jacket on [the president] and say, ‘You wear it.’ ”

But having some latitude doesn’t mean an incoming president should set goals haphazardly, Colombo says, noting that his own ideas did not originate in a vacuum.

“I felt an obligation to look at my predecessors’ goals. Some of my goals were to help some of those projects come to fruition,” he explains. “It’s good to be bold, but you have to balance that with other initiatives, and with your budget.”

A measured approach such as Colombo’s, which combines personal goals with the goals of the organization, can be a recipe for success, says Dadie Perlov, a longtime association consultant and principal of Consensus Management Group, based in New York. The key, she says, is to be aware that each president may have certain personal goals in mind, and to plan accordingly.

“You need to factor personal projects into your budget,” she says. “Unless the association establishes a culture of not operating under some strategic direction, the board of directors will not allow a new president to come in and run roughshod. The board should set the agenda, not the president.”

Indeed, the board of directors or a similar executive committee at the bar can provide a brake on overambitious presidential initiatives.

At the Florida Bar, any new program or committee proposal must be reviewed by the bar’s program evaluation and budget committees, with final approval needed from the bar’s 52-member board of governors. “It gives us a check on any new or expanded program,” Harkness says. (For a look at how other bars evaluate potential new programs, see “Is your garden overgrown?” page 12.)

‘Training’ the president

The executive director, too, often subtly—and sensitively—helps shape the presidential year.

“A good executive director knows how to prepare a president for his or her work and establish the parameters of the job,” Perlov says. “They need to have a good one-on-one relationship with the president.”

Perlov calls the guidance the executive director gives a new president each year “an art.” Head compares his job to that of a traffic cop.

“There’s no one, straight road the president must follow, as long as you’re headed in the right direction. If you veer off the highway, then the executive director needs to wave a flag,” he says. “I give presidents a lot of latitude on the highway.

“But things have to be reasonable. A new president can’t come in and expect to direct whatever he wants right away.”

Head has seen presidents with plenty of contrasting ideas, often one following right after another, and has seen this cause some tension among staff members dealing with such change. He sees this, too, as part of the art of being executive director. “The bar association belongs to its members, and the staff adjusts to that leadership. It’s a challenge, but that is the job of an executive director of a state or local bar.”

Sheree Swetin, executive director of the San Diego County Bar Association, says she does not try to discourage new bar presidents from proposing new initiatives. But she does try to help match ideas up with the bar’s strategic plans. “It gives me a chance to take things from their basket of ideas,” she says.

Sometimes, she acknowledges, the task of guiding an incoming president and heading off an initiative that doesn’t mesh well with the overall plan can be too much. In that case, she says, “you just have to let them go.” The key to maintaining some degree of control, she says, is for the executive director to make sure the board is aware of the situation—particularly if it begins to cause budget problems.

A new approach to ‘legacy’

In her work as associate director of the ABA Division for Bar Services Bar Management Information Unit, Elizabeth Derrico encourages bars to develop three-to five-year strategic plans—and to keep an eye on the horizon so the plan is continually refreshed—rather than short-term plans built around presidential initiatives. As for the question of how a president can leave a mark while working within such a plan, Derrico says there’s a more productive way to think of a bar leader’s legacy. “The key is for a president to realize that legacy is about leading the organization forward,” she says. “It’s not about new programs.” Incoming presidents should be encouraged to think of their legacy in terms of how well they represent the bar and use their one-year “bully pulpit” to advance the bar and its mission within the larger community, she explains.

Jennifer Lewin, Field Service representative within the Bar Management Information Unit, puts it this way: “A bar leader’s legacy is really tied to how each one communicates about the association in her own unique voice, with her own unique imprint.”

A respectful balance

For many bar executive directors and leaders, the key to a successful presidency is balance. “One of the great things about a new bar president is the boundless enthusiasm they have,” Swetin says. “The downside is that they usually can’t get it all done in 12 months.”

Says Turner, “There has to be a shared interest and shared enthusiasm,” he says. “But you also can’t continue to pile up initiatives. There needs to be some sort of organizational structure.”

Turner sums it up this way: “You want to value and respect a leader’s tradition and goals, but at the same time, you want a leader to value and respect the tradition and goals of the association. It’s definitely a balance.”

The path to presidency

Until last year, the president-elect of the San Diego County Bar Association spent just six months in that job before taking over as president. Now, the incoming president gets a full year before taking over.

And what a difference a year makes for the bar’s executive director, Sheree Swetin.

“It’s been a huge improvement,” she says. “Before, they simply didn’t understand that many of their [proposed] programs were either unrealistic or unaffordable.”

Many other executive directors, along with bar presidents, agree that a year in training as an active, involved president-elect is key to helping the president efficiently and effectively guide the bar.

Not only do most bars have that transitional path in place, but many also require a president to serve on the board of directors or governors for a certain number of years, or to spend time in a specific leadership role, such as treasurer or secretary, before taking office. It is experience that provides valuable continuity in a volunteer organization that changes leaders each year.

The president of the Florida Bar must have served at least four years on the bar’s board of governors before seeking nomination as president-elect or president. “They kind of grow up in the system,” says Jack Harkness, the bar’s executive director. “When they come to the office [of president], they know how the program works.”

Current Florida Bar President Alan Bookman says the six years he spent on the bar’s executive committee (part of the board of governors) gave him an opportunity to help craft the bar’s direction before becoming president. “Leaders need to come from a group that has worked together on the strategic plan,” he says.

Even in associations where the president takes more latitude in developing his or her own initiatives, such as the North Carolina Bar Association, continuity and awareness of bar structure are important, says Executive Director Allan Head. The NCBA requires the president-elect to spend his or her year as chair of the bar Finance Committee to gain more familiarity with the bar’s finances. Additionally, the president and president-elect serve as ex-officio members of the bar’s Strategic Planning Committee.

“Most presidents are going to know what the bar’s strategic plan says before they become president,” notes NCBA President Michael Colombo.

But while most bars rely on experienced members to take the helm, that’s not to say that a fresh perspective can’t be helpful, says Dadie Perlov, principal at association management consulting firm Consensus Management Group.

“I’ve seen a ‘dropped-in’ president do a good job in changing the culture of an organization that needed changing,” she says.