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How Can We Best Engage Past Leadership?

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I was out for dinner the other night, and based on my enthusiasm for the wine I had enjoyed by the glass, our table ordered a bottle of it.

“Would you like a new glass, or would you prefer to keep your seasoned one?”

First of all, rebranding a “used” wine glass into one that is “seasoned” is some serious food and beverage brilliance, but there are advantages to that glass. When I searched for this topic on discussion boards, many people noted using a seasoned glass is preferable as you get rid of any soap film, dust, etc. with that first glass and thus, the subsequent glasses contain a purer wine, beer, cocktail; the glass is also now the temperature of the wine it held. And of course, the environmental impact of not needing to wash another glass that is holding the exact same type of wine is an added plus as well.

A few days after the glass-seasoning experience, I sat in a committee meeting for the American Society of Association Executives, where I serve as past chair. Every volunteer leader knows that the title of “past” anything is a mixed bag – you are usually ready to move on after leading a team, and at the same time, feel like you have finally figured out your main value/job/purpose just as your term comes to an end. I appreciate organizations that work to allow past leaders some recovery time from volunteer fatigue, and then find ways to reengage them, retaining their passion, relationships and subject matter expertise – all essential elements of “seasoned” leadership – to help fulfil an organization’s mission.

In order to retain that seasoning, there may be value in conducting an exit interview with your chair or immediate past chair prior to their rolling off their leadership group. This could then be used to inform staff engagement with incoming chairs, the informal but important responsibilities for the incoming leader, and also some flags for how you could engage them in the future. If they enjoyed the important work they did on updating the governance structure, this way you know who should lead a bylaws task force review in two years. If they liked their time at the podium, perhaps they could be an emcee for an awards program.

When I surveyed our team of more than 20 client executive directors, I received some great practices:

  • The past chair leads the nominations committee, to leverage their knowledge of board composition, culture and need
  • Ensuring ongoing engagement by hosting an annual past leader dinner and providing lifetime membership benefits so they can continue to stay informed
  • Leveraging past chairs for media interviews, playing on their experience of serving as a spokesperson and industry knowledge
  • Moving all past board members into an emeritus category, with one of the responsibilities of the newest past chair to lead an annual call to provide an organizational update

One of the biggest challenges non-profit organizations face is the diminishing amount of time that leaders can devote to volunteer engagement. Although a focus on recruiting new and future leaders is important for all organizations, we should also make sure that we don’t lose the “seasoning” that past leaders provide. Or at least, that is my glass half-full perspective.

Erin Fuller leads MCI USA’s association solutions, and thinks many things are better with a bit of seasoning, including lasagne on the second day, repeat viewings of Christopher Guest movies, and her grandmother’s vintage brooches. After completing her tenure as the president of American University’s alumni association, she now serves on two dean’s advisory councils, and loves the opportunity to learn a new facet of her alma mater.

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