Vol. 42, No. 2

When a president becomes ED/CEO: Advantages, disadvantages, and important considerations

by Robert J. Derocher

It was 2003, and attorney Marc Staenberg was focused on becoming president of the Beverly Hills Bar Association—not running it as its executive director. But when the bar’s then-controller was charged with embezzling $800,000 from the association, the BHBA Board of Directors asked President-Elect Staenberg to use his business and legal skills to instead become Interim Executive Director Staenberg.

“The Beverly Hills Bar did not miss a beat: We increased membership, we righted the ship, and 18 months later, we had recouped the stolen money,” Staenberg recalls. “It was not in my plans to stay when I first came on board. 

“I wanted to be president-elect and then president. But I found that I was doing something in my profession and enjoying it, and that it was appreciated—and that’s a great feeling.”

Some 14 years later, Staenberg, now chief executive officer of the bar, is still enjoying the job, even if it took a little while to “learn all the moving parts” of bar management that most bar members—even board members and officers—don’t really know.

While the path from association member to executive is still a bit unusual in the bar and association world, it’s not unheard of. And while some who have made the jump say that past membership experience can provide some distinct advantages, it is not without some challenges that others caution against—particularly in today’s evolving association management atmosphere.

‘The Big Question’

Attorney and Louisville Bar Association member Scott Furkin was one of two finalists for the bar’s executive director position in 2007 when he faced the bar’s Executive Board for what he calls “The Big Question.”

Recalls Furkin, “They said, ‘Can you transition to being an employee and taking orders from people who you used to work with?’ It was by no means a foregone conclusion that I was going to get the job.”

But Furkin assured the board that he could indeed make the transition, and he was selected to manage the association that he also belonged to as a member. While he understands that bar staff can sometimes find itself at odds with its volunteer members, he believes his membership gave him better insight into the process and into member needs. But perhaps one of the biggest assets he brought to the job was his former position as an executive director at another nonprofit association before taking the helm at the LBA.

“I learned that there’s a big difference between management and leadership,” he says. “You always have to be aware that there is a distinction, that these are two really distinct roles.”

Beware the pitfalls

It is a distinction, however, that many can struggle with, says Jennifer Baker, Senior Director of ASAE Business Services, Inc. While many association members view it as a positive to have “one of their own” in charge who understands their needs, others worry that just being a good association member does not make one a good association executive.

“Running a social enterprise like an association, especially in today’s fast-paced world, takes business acumen, political savvy, emotional intelligence, and a willingness to be a steward of a mission and resources versus an owner,” Baker says. “It can sometimes be an uncomfortable experience for volunteers as they move from being a member to being a staff person, and the process can involve a steep learning curve.”

David Patt agrees. A certified association executive and longtime association management consultant, Patt says the member-as-executive model opens up a host of potential conflicts, particularly for someone who may not be experienced in association management.

“Just because you’re a good doctor or a good lawyer, it doesn’t mean you’re a good manager. If you want management help, you hire a professional manager,” he says. “You need to be a detached person. You need to be able to tell [members] when they’re wrong. If you’ve been on the volunteer side, you’re biased.”

Trust leads to success—and a great moment

Staenberg understands the concerns. But like Furkin, he also brought previous association management experience to the job at the BHBA. He also believes the trust he and board members developed during the embezzlement crisis were key to his success, and, ultimately, the bar’s success in the wake of the problem.

And it was that trust and camaraderie, he says, that brought him one of his best moments at the bar: when the BHBA president stepped down and let President-Elect Staenberg become President Staenberg for one week.

“It was very touching. I felt very honored and fortunate that I had these warm feelings for my colleagues, and they for me,” he says. “They appreciated that I was looking at things from both sides.”