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.