Healthy Tension

There are some things that people love to complain about.

Dealing with difficult relatives around the holidays. Drivers weaving in and out of traffic. The slow line at Motor Vehicles. Rude people. Unappreciative children. The guy driving by with his windows rolled down and the bass turned up. The inexplicable actions and thoughts of people with political views that are different from your own.  And, for nonprofit CEOs, working with a Board of Directors.

“They don’t ____________ me!” say the CEOs about their boards, and you can fill in the blank: “trust,” or “help,” or “understand,” or “support.”

But here are a few things CEOs need to understand about boards:

1)     The board member’s job, at its legal core, is to ensure that charitable dollars are being put to appropriate use. The board is the public’s eye on the operations of your nonprofit.

2)     Which means that a certain degree of tension is baked into the CEO-board relationship. If there were no tension whatsoever, then the board would not really be doing its job.

3)     In an era of limited resources, CEOs need the best board they can get: board members who can provide skills to keep the organization moving in the right direction, who can connect the organization to helpful supporters in the community, and who can give generously of their time and money.

4)     Which means that if CEOs spend all their time fretting about real or imagined slights by the board, if they worry that board members are stepping on their toes, if they whine about having to develop a more nuanced financial projection for the next board meeting, they may drive away the most capable and independent board members. That will leave the CEOs with boards that are more amenable to their wishes, but far less useful in helping them and the organization. In other words, the easy board they crave may not be what they really need or want.

5)     Boards are the one legal check on a poorly performing CEO. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a hundred times: “Well, I wanted to stick it out at XYZ Agency, but the CEO was crazy. S/he was driving staff away. Yet the board looked the other way AND DID NOTHING!” The board’s single most important role is to hire, monitor, support, evaluate, and, if necessary, fire the CEO. The board is the only body that can do that. The CEO needs to appreciate – and not fear – this dynamic. For the board to rubber-stamp the CEO is to abdicate its most important responsibility and to leave the staff and the clients without defense from an out-of-control executive.

6)     Board members are busy with their day jobs. Or, if they’re retired, they’re busy enjoying life. CEOs can’t expect board members to think about the organization 24/7, or to remember every strand of discussion from the last board meeting, or to have the intuition for the work of the organization that staff members have. Board members bring a larger perspective and a sense of the community priorities. CEOs need to value that. They shouldn’t criticize board members for not being clones of the staff.

7)     If board members were clones of the staff, knowing every detail, digesting every nuance of every report, then the CEO would complain that the board was micromanaging.

8)     All of which means: complaining about the board solves very little and distracts the CEO from the need to build a smoother, more productive relationship. The CEO’s choice is not whether to have a board. It’s whether to have a good board or a bad board. And the first step toward building that board is to understand the board-CEO relationship, awkwardness, tension, warts and all. Do that, and you’re on the right track.

Copyright Alan Cantor 2012. All rights reserved.

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2 Comments. Leave new

  • Alan,
    You are batting 1,000 with regard to your messages and ideas. I read every one and look forward to the next blog arriving. Thank you for sharing….they reinforce our efforts at the Boys & Girls Club and provide effective ways of improving our resource and board development.
    Brian T


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