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Transforming The Private Club Board

Search America By Harvey Weiner & Mark Weiner 
Partners of Search America


Change can be frightening. Change can be rewarding. Profound change takes gutsy leadership.

Evaluating numerous private clubs throughout this country since 1974 has presented an opportunity to meet many committed directors who are conscientiously addressing a variety of initiatives critical to their club's viability including: strategic and long-range planning; mission statement; vision; leadership development; membership retention and matriculation; rebranding the club; management alternatives and succession planning; team building; the annual board retreat. These leaders make a difference, one by one.

A frequently raised question is: "How do we upgrade the performance of our private club Board?"

First, replace the Nominating Committee with  The Committee on Directors (COD).
 You may have to modify the club's bylaws. This standing committee's first charge is to scour the entire membership roster in search of tested leaders, willing to share their experience and expertise and capable of committing to no less than three years in the club's service. They must agree to boldly press for those best practices and strategies which they have seen succeed elsewhere. Be absolutely clear about expectations and why s/he was selected: to help move the club toward a new vision and renewed vitality. The COD's second responsibility is to evaluate, in real time, the skill and contribution of each director, while serving, including attendance at meetings, engagement in debate, respect for confidentiality, wise counsel, etc.

Let's focus on the positive impact that a qualified corps of directors can bring to service on a private club's board. A competent director, in our opinion, is that lay leader who has experience serving on the board of at least one other successful 501c(3 or 7), such as the United Way, the local Symphony, private school, or even another private club. This is probably not their first private club membership. They have, presumably, participated in effective governance elsewhere. S/he brings an immediate understanding of process, organization, management, directors' and committees' responsibilities, correct conduct of meetings, what defines a proper committee report, the importance of attendance and participation in collaborative thinking. The dramatic difference between novice directors versus experienced hands is clear. Service in the trenches of governance prepares one to know what works and what doesn't. These are the directors who respect each other at meetings; ask appropriate questions; can be decisive when necessary. They are usually the last to speak but the first to be listened to. They astutely distinguish between substance and source. If nominated, the veteran director can be predicted to provide precious wisdom at every meeting.

We recall the chairman of a private club's search committee with whom we partnered. He recognized both the limitations of his fellow board members and the remarkable potential of his club. Moreover, he acknowledged the decades-long difficulty the club had in attracting qualified board nominees with both a commitment to their club and prior board experience elsewhere. Before initiating the search for the club's new Chief Operating Officer we recommended and were granted the opportunity to conduct a comprehensive board workshop, a series of member focus groups, and one-on-one interviews with each key staff member. We also led a private luncheon meeting with past presidents, all of whom showed up representing over 40 years of club leadership.

Sometimes, it takes an "expert", you know, the guys who travel from over a hundred miles away, to help private club members appreciate what they've got. Within days of the site visit apathy had been transformed into contagious enthusiasm. The rejection of clear and present opportunity morphed into eagerness to take their club beyond the next level. The value perception increased. Membership Retention improved. The search chairman was elected president and his club now enjoys a solid foundation upon which future generations may rely. Governance has been overhauled. Recognition of past presidents and visible appreciation for directors' service has generated respect for the board. Attracting new directors has now become a process of screening an over-abundance of volunteers.

Sometimes all it takes is one experienced individual with an inspired vision, confidence and determination to influence change. Who can calculate the value of this one dedicated leader's impact on the club's future ability to attract other talented leaders, retain and recruit new members and secure the viability of his club for succeeding generations?

Change takes courage, sometimes just the power of one.

Harvey and Mark Weiner, two generations of thought leadership in private club management search & consulting, are partners in Search America , Trusted Advisors Since 1974. 800.977.1784
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