The Departed

So what should a nonprofit board do when high-ranking staff members leave the organization?

This may sound radical, but shouldn’t the board try to figure out why these staff members left?

A few years ago a friend of mine found himself in an awful work situation. He was the development director of a nonprofit with an iconic and charismatic founding CEO. The organization had the reputation of being a highly effective operation. But my friend described an utterly chaotic and dispiriting workplace. The CEO insisted on signing off on each and every decision and piece of correspondence. Then, contradictorily enough, he would disappear for days at a time, even a week or two, without warning.

Because of this combination of micromanagement and absenteeism, the CEO’s email and voice mail boxes were overflowing, and vital correspondence went unanswered. When this behavior caused problems for the organization, the CEO inevitably blamed one staff member or another (my friend as much as anyone). The CEO would lash out inappropriately and erratically at staff, using language that was belittling and coarse. And throughout, there was significant resentment among the staff about the out-sized salary the CEO was receiving (well beyond the norms for the region and the industry), while other staff were struggling and even moonlighting to make ends meet.

Got the picture? Yikes!

But all the while, the board gave excellent reviews and steady pay increases to the executive director, who was very adept at balancing budgets and “managing up.” The board’s understanding of what was actually going on within the organization was negligible. Virtually all of the information the board received came from and through the CEO, and the board did not survey staff as part of the CEO’s annual performance review. Though the board took notice of the very high staff turnover, they never probed into the reasons for the departures. The CEO had a pat answer for each person leaving: “He left for more money and a more flexible schedule,” or, “She took a job closer to home,” or, more often than any other reason, “It turned out that he wasn’t a good fit.”

In any event, my friend who was stuck in that workplace hell found a job at a different and better organization, where he has since thrived. When he left the first organization, he asked me: “What do I tell board members when they ask me why I left?” I answered: “I’m guessing that they won’t ask you. Board members don’t go looking for trouble. If anyone does, you should say something diplomatic and predictable like, ‘I left for this great opportunity elsewhere.’ In the very unlikely event that the board member follows up by asking you whether there were problems at your old organization, then tell the truth. But I’ll bet you that no one will ask.” And, sadly, no one did.

I’ve talked before about the critical importance of a board doing a thorough annual evaluation of the CEO – a process that should include input from the staff. It’s similarly important for a board to understand why high-ranking staff members leave. And the best way to do this is to have a board member conduct an exit interview.

At this point, I can imagine that some of you are screaming about how having board members conduct exit interviews would be a terrible intrusion into the CEO’s management role. I understand that concern, and usually I’m first to criticize a board for micromanaging a CEO. But if, like me, you think that the most important role for a board is to hire, support, and evaluate the CEO, and if you also recognize that the central role of the CEO is to attract, lead, and inspire a high-quality staff, then isn’t the departure of a top staff member the perfect opportunity for a board-led exit interview?

You would think from these examples that I consider CEOs to be incompetent, duplicitous, vindictive, or all three. That’s absolutely not the case. As a group, nonprofit CEOs are visionary, hard-working, and dedicated leaders. Many are lovely people. They have a tough, lonely and high-pressure job, and most of them perform admirably. But they are human, and they are flawed. And in some cases they have overstayed their welcome or even begun dragging down the organization.

If you serve on a board, how better to gain an understanding of the CEO’s performance than to talk with the people who report to the CEO – particularly those who are leaving and have little reason to sugar-coat their opinions? This is not to say that a departing staff member’s view will necessarily be accurate. Everything should be taken with a grain of salt, but it’s absolutely vital to get that information. How can you argue against learning more about the organization and its leadership from people who had been living and breathing it 24/7?

Copyright Alan Cantor 2014. All rights reserved.

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6 Comments. Leave new

  • Jocelyn Bowie
    April 29, 2014 1:21 pm

    Alan, you make some good points here, but I’ve been involved (as a board member) in instances in which a disgruntled staff member tries to bypass the CEO and take grievances directly – and inappropriately – to the board as a whole, or to individual board members. As my friend says (she’s a lawyer), if the facts are against you, argue the law; if the law is against you, argue the facts; if both the facts and the law are against you, argue the process. In one instance in which this happened, the person had been fired for cause. So I can see your approach being valuable sometimes, but not as a one-size-fits-all approach. In a related note, I’d appreciate your thoughts on best practices involving non-CEO-staff/board member interactions. As a NFP board member, I’ve had great interactions with staff, and I’ve had not-so-great interactions, which I’ve felt compelled to bring to the attention of the ED. Looking around online for some guidance, I found very little outside of discussion of how the CEO/ED should interact with board members. Any ideas?

    Reply
    • Smart comments, Jocelyn. Thanks!

      Yeah, there’s a lot of gray area here. When disgruntled staff members have ongoing access to board members, and when they use those connections to undermine he CEO, that’s absolutely not a good situation. There is such a thing as the chain of command, even in the nonprofit world, and by-passing that usually leads to no good. On the other hand, I’ve seen many more examples where the board members are in the utter thrall of the CEO and simply don’t have a clue about some significant problems between them and the staff. I know one organization that went five years in a row with 100% (or higher) staff turnover, before the board got the clue that part of the “fit” problem was the tyrannical (but charming, to the board, anyway) CEO. It should not have taken nearly so long, but the board had its head in the sand (or in worse places) and chose not to follow the clues to the appropriate conclusion.

      I guess that’s why I suggest structuring the staff feedback at particular, defined moments. One, as part of the CEO’s annual review, and two, in an exit interview. Otherwise, it’s inappropriate for board members to seek information about the CEO, and it’s inappropriate for staff members to offer it. And again, even within the confines of exit interviews and the CEO review, staff comments need to be taken in, but not necessarily swallowed whole.

      As for the staff-board interactions, I think it’s important for everyone to get to know each other. I’ve seen some cases where the CEO prohibited staff from interacting with the board, which I’ve found strange and troubling, and a real comment on the controlling nature of the CEO. And you’re right, there’s not much written about these interactions. In terms of what you report to the CEO and what you don’t — well, to my mind you need to keep your board responsibilities in mind. You’re in that position to look out for the best interests of the organization. If what a staff member does or says in serious enough to hurt the organization, then it’s fine — and, in fact, your obligation — to share that with the CEO.

      Again, thanks!

      Reply
  • Here’s a great resource I have shared with members of my board: http://www.blueavocado.org/content/should-staff-contact-board-be-restricted

    Reply
  • Brian Shankey
    April 30, 2014 11:44 am

    Al,

    Great article. I think that a part of the governance role of any nonprofit board is reasonable knowledge of, and occasional checkpoint of CEO management practices. This important global review ensures not only productive and healthy work environment and greater efficiency and effectiveness toward achieving the core mission.

    Reply
  • Jocelyn Bowie
    April 30, 2014 9:07 pm

    Hi again,

    Thank you, Hope, for that link. It is excellent. And Alan – thanks for your further comments and clarification.

    Jocelyn

    Reply

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