The Value of Selecting an Outsider as Chief Staff Executive

L&M concludes a highly successful six-year engagement providing executive management to the California Association of Flower Growers & Shippers (CalFlowers).  It’s been an honor and privilege to serve the CalFlowers board of directors and membership.  We are grateful for the new friends we made and to have learned about the fascinating cut flower industry.

A Bold Board and A Unique Decision

On October 1, 2013 L&M began an engagement that was unique for an Association Management Company (AMC). We were retained to provide executive management to fill the CEO role for an association that directly employed four staff members from an office in Santa Cruz County, about 90 miles south of our San Francisco office. This was the only such engagement for an AMC at the time, or since, that we are aware of.

Typically, AMCs provide clients with full services (i.e., the association has no employees and the AMC provides the chief staff executive and all operational services, including headquarters location). Or, they provide select operational services to an association that already has its own executive and some operational staff. Retaining an AMC for executive management alone was a first and a bit of an experiment for both CalFlowers and L&M.

L&M’s solution was to split the Association’s CEO position description into two parts and provide two deeply experienced association executives. L&M principal Michael LoBue, CAE, served as chief executive officer and Chris Freed, CAE, served as chief operations officer. As is typical of an AMC’s ability to right-size staffing assignments, this approach delivered a savings to the Association compared to directly hiring employees. Harder to measure, but no less a factor in the effectiveness of the management team, was the benefit of having two perspectives to manage the big challenge to change and remake a 70-year old trade association.

Recognizing the Value of Outside Experience (or Fresh Eyes)

Another important factor that contributed to the success of this engagement was the then-board’s strongly held view that they needed an outsider in the CEO role. Someone, or a team, that had no previous experience in the cut flower industry, but deep experience in association management and governance. Not only did they want exceptional management, they wanted help becoming a better board, and they understood the differences between management and governance. As association executives, this was music to our ears. A board of directors that appreciated the difference between governance and management. And we were excited to learn about and contribute to a new industry.

At the beginning of the engagement, we were handed a list of 10 problem areas to fix. The board had been aware of their challenges and hired a professional to conduct an organizational and governance audit. Patrick Winters, CAE/IOM of Strategic Evaluations and Executive Transitions, did the audit and shared the results with the board of directors . The board was committed to address each of the 10 areas.

Results Start Pouring in Quickly

It had been almost 20 years since the organization’s bylaws had been amended. In less than four months, they were amended with one vote of the membership.

By the end of the ninth month of the engagement, we had completed a comprehensive strategic planning exercise with the assistance of AMMR Association Management Consultants. With two exceptions on the following list, the problem areas were fixed within one year:

  1. Mission, Goals and Objectives
  2. Governing Body, Officers and Directors
  3. Organizational Structure and Documents
  4. Programs, Services and Activities
  5. Staff/Human Resources
  6. Financial Planning and Reporting
  7. Membership Development and Retention
  8. Communications
  9. Government Affairs/External Affairs
  10. Office Technology and Information Management

The two areas not addressed in the first year were Communications and Government Affairs because they were not identified as being necessary to their goals and priorities from their 2014 strategic plan. External Affairs was addressed successfully a little later. A comprehensive marketing and communications strategy were presented and adopted by the board in 2018.

During the fall of 2014 Michael LoBue proposed and executed a plan to bring the eight stakeholder organizations in the U.S. floral market to a meeting to discuss how these associations could collaborate and leverage each organization’s scarce resources to benefit the entire floral market. This group of industry associations included two international floral associations with significant market share in the U.S. market. This group is now known as the Flower Summit.

The Flower Summit met at least annually until 2017, after which it has met at least twice per year. Flower Summit organizations have collaborated to fund and execute a number of projects that could not have been undertaken by any of the individual organizations. Until September 2019, Michael LoBue was the recognized leader and facilitator of this initiative.

Other successes delivered during L&M tenure as CalFlowers’ executive management team include:

  • Rebranded the organization
  • Grew membership by 37%
  • Increased revenue by 33%
  • Increased reserves by 17%
  • Realigned staff resources by fiscal year 2017 to make available 25% of the Association’s revenue for re-investment in the floral industry in the form of grants and sponsorships:
    • Scholarships to support undergraduates pursuing careers in floriculture
    • Sponsored research to find solutions to Thrips and Botrytis (infestations in certain flower crops)
    • Sponsorships of state floral associations to support initiatives to train high school teachers to instruct high school students in floral design (e.g., Texas State Floral Assoc.)
    • Initial funding source for Life In Bloom, the first PBS series featuring flower care and design by J Schwanke
  • Instituted a governmental relations program that successfully stalled legislation in California and significantly contributed to opposing a House of Representatives resolution that the board deemed harmful to the floral industry
  • Became an important benefactor to Memorial Day Flowers Foundation

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