Past President’s Syndrome

In 2015, a large number of organizations will undergo some type of board change. What happens to the “past” president of the organization? I Googled the word “past” and the result I received was, “gone by in time and no longer existing”. We might as well call the past president, the “gone by in time and no longer existing” president if a specific role is not defined.

In most organizations, the roles of the executive officers and directors are clearly defined with an important purpose.  The role of the outgoing president is vaguely defined or not at all.  In reviewing bylaws of various nonprofit organizations, this vagueness is further confirmed:

“…shall advise and assist the president and such other duties as the president shall define…”

“…shall assist the president as requested…”

The following is the most interesting description that I found:

“…the office of the immediate past president shall be filled by the outgoing president. In the event there is no outgoing president, this position will remain vacant and the President will appoint a member in good standingto fulfill the duties of the office for a period not to exceed twelve months…”

In all of the bylaws reviews (and there were many), I could not find a meaningful definition or role that was more substantive than what I found above. Also, it is interesting last description that if there is no outgoing president, this position will be filled by a member in good standing. How is this possible and how can it benefit the organization? Why should we define this role more succinctly?

Chris Mahaffey, MS, CAE, FASAE and Executive Director of the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons inspired me to write this article by asking a question of a president, “Are you also ready to be a Past President?” I have never heard that question asked. The following are ways we can help one of our valuable assets in our organizations to thrive and find a purpose beyond their presidential role. The following are some best practices observed:

Wisdom Council –Establish a Wisdom Council that includes all of the organization’s former presidents, that are willing to serve and understand the job description, with a defined role of a) providing input as a constituent body during strategic planning process via a survey, b) provide insight into a board-assigned topic that is published by the organization annually and c) serve as ambassadors of the organization

Historian – As time goes by, how much of the history of the organization do we retain and how much do we mark the milestones year-over-year as an organization? The past president is in a unique position to dedicate time and talent to help recount the history of the organization during their term and the accomplishments in that year. This tradition then establishes a rich history that helps to show where the organization has been and through its strategic plan, where it wants to go next

Ambassador– Even though your president has left office, they are still very influential and connected within the field/industry they represent. We touch on this in the Wisdom Council example but the role of the ambassador is an important one that needed to be called out. Specifically, if we defined this role, the past president will serve as an ambassador for the organization locally, at events and on social media (Facebook, LinkedIn, organization blog, etc.) portraying a positive image of the organization at all times. Define this role well, provide direction and training so that the organization is leveraging the ambassador’s connections positively to promote the brand of the association through their interactions and contacts.

No Role– It is okay to have the role defined as no rolefor the outgoing president. If it is a struggle to work through and define the role within the organization, then it will be a struggle for the outgoing president to find a purpose. If the organization can’t define it, then how can we expect the outgoing president to define it effectively? If there is no role, let the outgoing president know that up front but also thanking them for the years of service. It can be difficult for an organization to decide there is no role as it may be felt as a sense of disrespect given the past work of the outgoing president, but if the former president was part of the decision to have no position  or role for an outgoing president, then it is understood and accepted.  

President John Quincy Adams once said “There is nothing more pathetic in life than a former president.” If the role is well defined, respects the time served by the individual and makes a positive impact to the organization, this statement is the furthest from the truth. If the role is to “advise and assist as requested by the president”, etc., then the organization has provided that volunteer a license to meander during the year while they are waiting to advise and assist, which is neither meaningful nor productive.

Have we provided outgoing presidents a license to meander by not defining this role well enough? Is it a needed role? Evaluate the needs of the organization and determine how best the organization’s outgoing president can provide value. Commit to discussing this with your future outgoing president today to help set their path for the future even if the road ends after their last board meeting.