As I sat down to write about the relationship between a board and executive director, a beloved colleague came to my office to tell me about a board on which she participates. That day, the relatively new Executive Director gave his resignation. What caused a fairly new ED to give his resignation? My colleague said that while there were several issues, the primary one was that the ED said the Board Chair was micro-managing his work. Even though the Board Chairís term was only a year, the Executive Director couldnít imagine lasting through a year.
There is a great amount of information about executive directorsí tenure. Even in a difficult economy, many executive directors are nearing retirement and are retiring. The average length of an executive directorís term is 18 months. Development directors tell me that without the stability of leadership, procuring funds is more difficult. And, common sense tells us that finding a good ED and retaining him/her makes organizational sense. Common sense and lots of human resource and board development literature also suggest that the responsibility for developing, encouraging and retaining the executive director is the boardís job. So what can a conscientious board do to help manage the ED/board relationship?
Like any good relationship, the board/ED relationship is based on communication. Communication should take many forms. One of those is an annual review. In the end, any review tool will work. The best tool is the one that is actually implemented. One nonprofit board administered a 360-review inviting the board, volunteers and staff to participate. Feedback was kept confidential and the ED saw a pattern of strengths and areas for development. The Board Chair and Chair-Elect provided the results. The ED was truly grateful for the information. She reported that never in her ten years of serving as the leader had she been given any feedback. A year later when the same process was administered, several of the developmental opportunities had been addressed. As a result of the review, a system was put in place with the intent to cultivate this leaderís skills. It is surprising that performance appraisals are not standard practice.
Other communication includes the board setting clear strategic or organizational goals. Annual planning allows the ED to accomplish certain tasks, such as fund development or new program implementation. These accomplishments can be reported to the board. This kind of communication sets the boundaries for board involvement. It is the responsibility of the board to oversee these goals and the ED to execute them. In addition, board members can be better at acknowledging what is going well in their nonprofits. Much of the writing and discussion focuses on all that is difficult in the industry. Yet somehow, well-run nonprofits are responding creatively to todayís challenges. The credit goes to the executive directors and the staff they manage. We canít praise this work enough.
One of the ways to ensure leadership continuity and assure the board that the organization is stable is through succession planning. The conversation between the board and the ED about who will succeed the leader or other key managers can be a tense one. After facilitating a board retreat with an ED and board in which the board strongly recommended to the ED of 20 years that they outline a succession plan, the ED called and asked if I thought they were trying to oust him. I explained that the board was giving an endorsement of his leadership. This ED had built an organization from a fledgling nonprofit to one of the largest in the county. The board wanted to be sure that the organization could sustain itself if the ED left. A rich conversation can be constructed on organizational continuity. A committee of the board, such as the governance or executive committee, can work with the ED to create an entire management plan that not only identifies a successor to the top manger, but to all the key managers as well. Continuing the mission long past the current board and ED can become a welcome conversation.
A board, in particular the board chair, that develops a trusting relationship with the ED ensures good governance, appropriate focus on the mission and the chance for an ED to thrive and survive what is a difficult job.
by Deborah Dale Brackney