Make It So: A Partner Paradigm Between Executive and Board
Q: What does it mean for a nonprofit board to “support” its executive director?
A: A bevy of organization development consultants promote a principle, to which I also subscribe: Nonprofit boards have one employee, and that employee is the executive director/CEO. Alas, in practice, employee/employer, a hierarchical top-to-bottom paradigm, does not in the least capture a much more nuanced and complicated relationship that calls for an equally nuanced description of what—to produce positive, mission-focused outcomes—makes for a truer and more effective relationship and definition of roles.
Make It So
The HR management field offers that “support” of an employee generally involves a number of disciplines that include: goal-setting, skill development, supervision/oversight, managing, coaching and performance appraisal. The same field finds it quite acceptable that like in Star Trek when Jean Luc says, “Make it so,” the employee clearly understand that it is their job to carry-out what has been handed down to them (presumably with consultation).
Executives Can Be Perceived to Fill the Role of Employer
I believe that for nonprofit boards, employer/employee does not accurately describe the role and relationship between a board and executive. Yes, a board is indeed the legal hirer of the executive and, thus, the employer. But on a practical level, board members tend to spend only an average of between 24 to 40-plus hours a year actively engaged (usually in board and committee meetings) and as a result, leaving the executive looking, sounding and acting de facto as the employer and the board as just one of their constituents.
Partner Is a More Accurate
So, rather than considering the dynamic between the board and executive as employeer/employee, a more constructive paradigm has the board serving as partner, counsel, coach and cheerleader to the executive.
This reframing defines a role and relationship that is not centered on the concept of employer and employee, boss and non-boss, but more importantly focuses on recognizing that each party has a unique role, while equally being invested in a common outcome: mission.
The “partner” term recognizes a shared leadership model, where the volunteer leadership (board as owners) recruit and pay a smart savvy individual to participate in the development and executor of commonly-agreed upon vision, goals, strategies and budget.
10 ‘Dos’ to Constitute Board Support
Utilizing this partner paradigm, here are 10 expectations that a board would maintain over wearing the “make it so” mantle of employer/employee:
1. Be specific about expectations. Annual goals that achieve the strategic direction are helpful and directive, and should be developed together by both the board and executive.
2. Board members must do their part including showing up at scheduled meetings, being prepared and willing to contribute thoughtfully to the conversation. Board meetings serve as the iterative and on-sight occasion for supporting the executive.
3. Board members must do what they say they have agreed to do. When one part of the “partnership” fails, the other part of the partnership must pick up the slack and often bears the full responsibility at the very least producing irritation: not supportive.
4. Board members must learn and ask questions. As noted, members only wear their board hat two to six hours a month. Knowledge must be increased if effectiveness is the goal.
5. Board members must be available as counsel and coach, recognizing that being available does not mean ruling as boss,
except when results don’t align with goals.
6. Board members must make initiative to forge a relationship as a supporter, being cautious not to undermine authority.
7. Board members should not be the boss of employees. They have a boss.
8. Board members must take time to understand progress and look for opportunities to be supportive.
9. Board members should not, unless specifically asked or specified by your role (e.g. board chair), direct the executive.
10. Board members must provide feedback about job performance, particularly successes remembering to also conduct a formal annual performance appraisal to ensure the executive is clear about goals, accomplishments and areas where the relationship with the board and areas of performance can be strengthened.
In conclusion, boards support their executives, while executives support their boards—it’s not a one-way relationship, it’s a partnership.