Vol. 43, No. 1

Mutual respect: Advice from volunteer leaders and executive directors

by Tim Eigo

Tim Eigo is the editor of Arizona Attorney Magazine at the State Bar of Arizona.

Bar associations are built upon professional relationships. And among the most important are the interactions between volunteer leaders—often the bar president—and the staff chief executive. At the 2018 Annual Meeting of the National Association of Bar Executives, a panel composed of both described how the relationship between presidents and executive directors can make difficult association moments easier. Of course, missteps may lead to the opposite result, too.

Attendance for “Presidential Perspective: What Bar Staff Can Learn from Volunteer Leaders” was over capacity, with more than 70 people packing the space. Clearly, professionals on both sides of the relationship equation yearn to understand the special combination that may assist in communications, operations and long-term vision. After all, organizations’ success and sustainability may depend on it.

Moderated by Jill Snitcher McQuain, Executive Director of the Columbus Bar Association, the dialogue shared the insights of Dana Tippen Cutler, past president of The Missouri Bar; Carl D. Smallwood, past president of the Columbus Bar Association and of the National Conference of Bar Presidents; Crista Hogan, executive director of the Springfield Metropolitan Bar; and Dave Blaner, executive director of the Allegheny County (Pa.) Bar Association and past president of NABE.

Data matter

One ingredient in the relationship recipe may be useful and trustworthy data, which can reveal stakeholder sentiment and inform leadership decisions. Panel organizers wisely hinted at that business need when, weeks before the Chicago session, they launched a survey of current and past bar presidents focused on their relationships with executive directors. The responses, from more than 100 presidents, are a treasure trove for others developing a new relationship—or trying to retrieve one that’s gone awry. (Complete results of the survey can be read here.)

Among the questions asked—some of which were discussed by panelists—were:

  • What’s the main quality you admire in an E.D.?
  • Did you and the E.D. establish ground rules—or preferences—at the outset?
  • What’s the best advice bar staff gave you during your presidency?

Though grounding anecdotes might have been most helpful to audience members, the panelist responses were insightful and eye opening. Many could serve as concise lessons for volunteers and staff alike.

Preparing the volunteer leader

The group opened with a discussion of how to lay groundwork for a bar leader who will soon assume the top job. In the survey data, only about 50 percent of bar presidents indicated they had engaged in collaborative pre-job planning with their executive director. Snitcher McQuain said she would have expected that number to be higher. But Smallwood was more adamant.

“That 50 percent number is horrifying,” he said. “Volunteer leaders have strengths and weaknesses. It helps for staff to know what fears the volunteer has going in. It helps everyone to decide what gaps staff will fill.”

He said that at the Columbus Bar Association, a retreat was held about six months before the president took office. There, the executive director and the leader could candidly discuss “hopes, dreams and working styles.”

Cutler agreed that planning and communication are vital to an association’s success. She and Missouri Bar E.D. Sebrina Barrett had a detailed meeting in advance of the start of the presidential year. Among the topics covered were how Barrett hoped the year would go, and what Cutler thought her own leadership style looks like.

“Though we had been walking this path together for two years in advance,” Cutler said, “it was still a good meeting to have.”

Agreeing on communication

Not surprisingly, how and when to communicate with each other are important aspects of those preferences to be explored.

“I promised to try not to text the E.D. after 5 on Saturday,” said Cutler. “I tried not to break that rule. But Sebrina always broke my rule that she didn’t have to text me back.”

That’s an important lesson to remember, said Smallwood. Bar staff generally work a traditional workday of 8 to 5. Lawyers in private practice should not expect staff to be available 24/7.

Except for Dave Blaner, that is. He literally tells his bar president that he’s on 24/7 call.

“That’s why they give me a cellphone and a car,” Blaner said. But when he’s on vacation? That’s “off limits.”

When it comes to a collaborative plan that works for his bar, Blaner said, weekly conference calls with the executive committee ensure that everyone’s on the same page. Communication, especially with board officers, is key.

Blaner added that his experience as NABE president gave him insights into what the volunteer leader goes through, including “random member emails about X, Y and Z.”

When he first started as an executive director, Blaner admitted, “I was doing the same—blasting emails that I could deal with myself or bring up later one on one.”

That was a wakeup call, he said. Now, “Except for emergencies, I try to compartmentalize interrupting volunteer leaders. Before you hit that send button, think if it could wait for later.”

Walking in the other’s shoes

Panelists discussed the value of understanding their counterpart’s viewpoint.

“When I was president,” Smallwood said, “my family added a second floor to our house while we lived there, and we got a dog. Bar presidents arrive with different levels of commitment and available time. It helps the volunteer if the bar is well run and not in constant crisis.”

Executive directors also benefit if the volunteer leader arrives with realistic expectations, panelists said.

“Executive directors may not run a law firm,” Snitcher McQuain noted, “but volunteers must understand that the E.D. is running a multifaceted business.”

Agreed Blaner, “We have to educate our officers about how associations work. Trade associations are not law firms. And E.D.s are not managing partners of law firms.”

When problems arise

What should an executive director do when their volunteer leader drops the ball—or worse?

Hogan, who has been an E.D. for 17 years, says the best part of her job is that “every year, I get a new boss. They’re all the cream of the cream of the crop.” Even so, she admits, conflicts arise. And that’s when a deep connection with your executive council makes the difference.

“When there’s a problem,” Hogan suggested, “engage another board member. Put another board member between yourself and the problem.”

Dave Blaner has put that strategy into practice.

“I always work with others as a team,” he said. “I include the immediate past president and the incoming president. I rarely have a conversation just with the president.”

When worse comes to worst, Hogan added, “A president who is disengaged is better than one trying to steer you in the wrong direction.”

Panelists also addressed perennial issues such as helping the president complete their recurring column, and gently reminding leaders about the division of labor. Or, as Hogan put it, “Policy, not paperclips, is where the bar board should be.”

The goal of all this collaboration, reminded Smallwood, is to “leave the organization better than you found it.” That can be a hard lesson for volunteer leaders who feel they have a single year to make a mark. That’s when Blaner reminds them about best practices in sailing.

“As an officer and an executive director, you’re captaining a small sailboat. Be prepared to tack—no quick right or left turns. Organizations can’t change that quickly. Slow tacking is the best step.”

Cutler heaped praise on staff leaders: “You all have crowns in heaven for putting up with us.” And for volunteer leaders, she ended with some advice: “You are the record—so don’t let the record skip on your watch.”