Term Limits for Board Members and Committee Chairs – Careful What You Wish For!

Maria Bianchi, CAE, Vice President of Client Service and Best Practice, Interel + AMG; Executive Vice President, American Ambulance Association (AAA)

About 10 years ago the American Ambulance Association (AAA) changed its Bylaws to implement term limits. There were a number of reasons for the change including little movement or change in leadership as well as a lack of candidates for AAA President (few were willing to go from committee member or Director to President-Elect). There are certain committees in our trade association that are quite powerful (government affairs and Medicare regulatory are two of them) and we had Chairs in place for over a decade. And while term limits did indeed mitigate those two problems, there were some unintended consequences.

If your Board is setting the strategic vision and policies for the industry of which it represents, many of their issues are quite complex. Policy decisions need to be based on years of background and the learning curve is steep. While having a fresh approach and a new perspective can be helpful you are also losing years of experience from those members who have been term limited out of leadership. In order to expedite the learning curve staff must build in additional time for orientation and training, including policy review.

You can also create vacancies in leadership without enough qualified candidates to fill the open positions. It means spending extra time cultivating and encouraging members to become involved with the association at the committee level; again, not impossible but certainly something to plan for and most important set aside time and talent to insure success.

Retaining key staff is a critical success factor if you move to term limits for key leadership positions. Staff and consultants can play an important role in both continuity of policy decisions and vision as well as in leadership training and orientation. If your association suffers from a high staff and consultant turnover rate, leadership longevity may be necessary and term limits counter productive.

When all is said and done, term limits can assist with a number of issues including leadership stagnation and chairmanships and positions “for life.” And for every issue that is created by term limits; there are tactics and strategies that can mitigate or eliminate completely the fallout.

One important “tonic” to the loss of volunteer institutional history is to create a past leadership council and invite term limited leaders to participate. You can also create ex-officio positions on committees and tie certain positions to certain committees. This is a wonderful way of retaining the industry knowledge and showing respect and deference towards much beloved former Board members. In with the new and elevate the seasoned should be your Board mantra!