Editor's Blog

Fault lines

The ousting of Martin Sirk from one of the meetings industry’s most high-profile jobs has highlighted the tensions that can emerge between an association’s executive and its volunteer board.

Sirk, who had been at the helm of the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) for 16 years, was, to an outsider like me, seemingly doing a stellar job. Smart, engaging, popular, he had the energy crucial to meet a punishing schedule that saw him crossing continents and time zones on a regular basis. Perhaps more importantly, during his watch, the association has grown from 600 to more than 1100 members.

From a journalist’s perspective he was a great ‘contact’, too, willing to offer opinions and insights, usually in far greater depth than space allowed, and, often, at extremely short notice.

He was undoubtedly a thought leader, with a clear idea about where ICCA should be headed. Increasingly he saw the organisation not just as a bridge between the suppliers to the meetings industry and their association clients, but as a valuable resource for the associations themselves.

At this stage it is impossible to know what prompted the board’s decision to evict their man, but we understand it was a unanimous one. While he sees out the terms of his departure, various gagging clauses mean ICCA members and the industry at large must be content to speculate. But the explanation was simply that Sirk was not viewed as the right man to take ICCA into the future.

What can be said, without doubt, is that Sirk’s departure has caused ructions among some members and shocked the staff at the Amsterdam HQ where Sirk was well respected by his team.

Rick Taylor, CEO of The Business Tourism Company, echoed similar sentiments on Facebook when he appeared to answer his own question: ‘What? Where did this come from? Internal politics!’

Offline, questions have been raised about the timing of Sirk’s departure, ahead of the association’s congress in Dubai later this year when a new president will be elected. Only time will tell how that pans out. There have been rather unseemly rumours circulating about the size of Sirk’s salary, too, which inevitably lead to questions about how that was leaked and the size of his pay-off and whether this will be viewed as a good use of members’ subscription fees. The board had also anticipated a long period of handover for the new incumbent but Sirk’s decision to exit next month means it has to move more quickly than it had planned to replace him.

Of course, it was the worst kept secret in the association that Sirk’s relationship with ICCA president Nina Freysen-Pretorius was ‘problematic’. So was his dismissal the result of a personality power struggle?

The relationship between an association’s CEO and the board of directors is often ill-defined – or becomes ill-defined - and this can create unworkable tension. In some organisations the volunteer board ends up being mere ‘rubber-stampers’ – approving actions and policy changes that have been devised and proposed by the executive. In others, the board is far more proactive and it is seen as the executive’s job simply to do their bidding. In most organisations, one suspects, there’s a degree of push and pull, healthy or otherwise, very much depending on personal relationships. But, as you will understand all too well, the relationship between volunteer president and paid CEO in an association needs to be a productive and comfortable partnership if it is to be successful.

The next few months at ICCA promise to be interesting and challenging for all concerned and the congress in Dubai promises much – I’m looking forward to it more than most!

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