How NOT to Fight with Your Board Chair (Part 2)

In the last blog, inspired by Marla Cornelius’ article, “10 Great Board Chair Practices,” I wrote about the need to acknowledge the power dynamic between the Board Chair and the Executive Director. I also shared that I was slightly disappointed in Cornelius’ article because I felt that it didn’t go deep enough. I have this point of view because I have worked with so many Executive Directors who have been downright scared to share critical information with their Board Chair. Thus, sometimes it is necessary for the Board Chair to dig deeper and gently ask some tough questions:

  • I’m a former CPA, and yet I still occasionally call on my former accounting professor to ask him questions. Most ED’s do not have a finance or accounting background. They don’t know how to develop a budget or review financial statements. They put a lot of trust in their CFO or bookkeeper to do these types of things. And, sadly, these are the organizations that often end up in financial trouble. There is no malice nor embezzlement going on; it’s simply a lack of knowledge. So it’s really important for the Board Chair to inquire about the ED’s level of comfort with finances – and to help him or her get some additional skills or help, if this is a weak area.
  • If there is an exodus of staff, this should raise some red flags. Significant staff turnover can often be explained away by life changes and new opportunities. Do you hear that? It’s called “spin.” The Board Chair can play an integral role in probing to truly understand why staff are leaving. And as a whole, the Board should also be studying the organization’s structure. Is it top heavy? If so, why? Is there an annual survey conducted to explore if team members are truly happy and engaged with the organization? And how is the Executive Director really doing? Does he or she feel supported? More often than not, ED’s are working 60+ hours a week. What needs to happen for that to change?
  • Ask why. Sometimes the most important thing the Board Chair can do is to ask why the organization is taking on a new initiative, or why the organization is continuing an initiative. For many of us, it is hard to say no. It’s difficult to walk away from an opportunity, or to let go of something we’ve poured our sweat and tears into. And yet, sometimes that is what is best for the organization, and the Board Chair can [gently] point this out.
  • Manage the board. More often than not, it is the ED who manages the Board – which can often feel like managing a whole other set of staff. Board members who often go rogue, need to be called before meetings so that they don’t get the Board off track during the meeting. Board members who are not pulling their fair share of the work need to be called on the carpet. Don’t put the ED in this position. This is a critical area where the Board Chair can help manage the Board. And if it is that time consuming, then it becomes an opportunity to reassess the members of the Board and perhaps have some conversations that include letting those members go.
  • Create a success plan. This is essential for both the Board Chair and the ED. A great Board Chair will properly groom his or her successor. A Board Chair will also talk with the ED and create a success plan for the organization’s leadership, so that there is less chaos if the ED is lucky enough to win the lottery and decides to take a trip to sail around the world!

I want to acknowledge that there is a fine line between the Board Chair being supportive, and getting in the way of the daily operations. It’s important to continually check in and ensure that the Board Chair is being helpful, and not sucking up the ED’s time and becoming an “upward management issue.” That is to say: this is hard stuff. Be aware of what you’re saying and doing, as well as the consequences of your actions, and the unintended impact that they might have on the organization.

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