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Remaking the President

Their photos adorn the club’s hallway, usually aligned in chrono-logical order and offering a timeline of male business dress over the club’s history. They are the past presidents. Their recognition on the wall underscores the prestige of the office, the highest rank a club member can attain.

Given the respect of the office of president and its survival as a title in the club community, how could anyone advocate its demise? There are several very good reasons as we share below.

By Any Other Name – The Board Chair
The primary role of a club president is to chair the board of direc-tors—not to exercise authority over club operations. The vast majority of club presidents stay within their lane by simply acting as board chair. However, a minority of club presidents see the title as conveying authority that extends beyond leading the board. By removing the title of president in its governance model, a club can eliminate any misapplication of the title and ensure the board chair remains the leader’s sole focus.

The term president derives from the Latin term to preside over or govern. The label was chosen by our founding fathers to designate the head of the executive branch of government, eschewing a title suggesting absolute authority. Since then, the title has been adopted by private and public for-profit companies as well as by private clubs. However, there are considerable differences in the role of a club president and that of the president of a corporation.

With few exceptions, club bylaws list the president as the chair of the board. A large percentage of club bylaws also designate the president as the chief executive officer. In contrast, although corpora-tions see the president as the CEO who is responsible for day-to-day operations, clubs typically give that role to their general managers. The president of a club may serve for a year or two. Conversely, a company president’s term is rarely limited in the bylaws, but rather is determined by their performance in leading the company. How successful is a company likely to be if it changed its president/CEO every year or two?

Most clubs are nonprofit. Yet listing its board chair as president & CEO differs from other nonprofits, most of which do not use the title of president. Typically, nonprofits have a board chair leading the board and an executive director or president managing day-to-day operations. For example, the National Club Association (NCA), a nonprofit organization, has a board led by its chair. The NCA board delegates authority to the president & CEO to manage the operations of the organization.

The case is clear. Removing the title of president from the bylaws of a private club allows it to align its governance model not only with for-profit organizations, but also with most nonprofit organizations. There is no loss of efficiency by renaming the president and vice president the chair and vice chair. Moreover, doing so reduces the risk of misapplying the title of president by extending his/her reach beyond the role of board chair.

What About Tradition?
We don’t expect a rush to remove the title president from club governments. Its roots run deep; and private clubs are not known for bucking tradition. Clubs may see the removal as a demotion of the office, even an insult to past presidents. Further, the absence of the noble title may discourage members from aspiring to the position, thereby reducing the pool of qualified candidates.

We respect the reluctance of clubs to toy with tradition. The label of president has been part of club governance and culture for over a century, long before any serious attention was given to rules regulating for-profit or nonprofit organizations. That the title has survived myriad changes in laws regulating nonprofits in general and private clubs in particular speaks to its durability and the resistance that is sure to attend proposals for its removal.

Whither the President?
While there may have been good reasons for originally naming the board chair the president, a century later, maintaining the title of president is unnecessary—and potentially misleading. Corporations don’t do it and neither do most nonprofits. Even though laws applying to private clubs may differ from laws applying to for-profit and nonprofit corporations, the principles and best practices for good governance are basically the same. Corporations have board chairs leading the board and presidents running the organization. In a like manner, we recommend board chairs leading club boards and general managers running club operations.

More and more private clubs are employing sound business practices that mirror the actions of successful businesses. General managers are better prepared than ever to manage the organization and operations of private clubs. They are the club version of the president of a corporation and the executive director of a nonprofit organization. Some clubs have chosen to give the general manager the title of CEO—as is the case at Interlachen Country Club in Edina, Minn., Addison Reserve Country Club in Delray Beach, Fla., and The Union League Club of Philadelphia in Pa. Other clubs prefer to designate the general manager as the chief operating officer, as is the case at The Olympic Club in San Francisco and Greensboro Country Club in Greensboro, N.C.

As much as we respect the century-old tradition, it should not stand in the way of clarifying a club’s governance model by naming the board chair as just that—the board chair. In the future the photos of leaders can carry on down the club hallway just as they have—only with the title board chair instead of president.