Avoiding a Toxic Board-CEO Squabble

A public disagreement between the Bitcoin Foundation’s executive director and board leader is an object lesson on setting boundaries.

These are, to put it mildly, complicated times at the Bitcoin Foundation.

Earlier this month the association, which was organized in 2012 to support the digital currency among developers and regulators, became mired in a public feud about its direction. As Nonprofit Quarterly reported earlier this month, foundation board member Olivier Janssens recently leveled concerns that the foundation was nearly bankrupt, that most of the staff had been laid off, and that executive director Patrick Murck was heading out the door.

If a board member asks you how work is, answer as if it were your mother in law asking about how your married sex life is.

In response, Murck said, effectively, nuh-uh, and suggested that Janssens was overstepping his bounds as a board member: “Olivier basically jumped in front of our announcements on that and our annual report on the 2014 finances to be released next week, and he spun it very very negative,” he wrote on a forum in response to Janssens’ post.

By all accounts, the Bitcoin Foundation has serious issues with funding and membership to address. (And last week, Murck was replaced with a new executive director, Bruce Fenton.) But I’m less interested in that than in the board-staff leadership breakdown that’s made this squabbling public, and in what other organizations can do to avoid it.

The first piece of evidence of problems is in Janssens’ recollection of his first board meeting, at which he and a colleague “immediately put forward a vote to have the board meeting recorded.” Recording board meetings is, in itself, a very, very bad idea. But it is also a mistake to make recording meetings a wedge issue, as a way to try to stoke a fight over who’s being more transparent than whom about the association’s operations.

The end result, regardless of who’s right or wrong, is a board member making a show of  knowing operations better than  staff leadership. And that’s a problem no matter what.

You are, I hope, not dealing with a problem so severe or public. But the experience may be a useful reminder of the broader importance of addressing dysfunction between board leadership and staff operations. A recent conversation about that boundary on an ASAE Collaborate group prompted me to contact Doug Kleine, CAE, president of Professional Association Services and interim executive director, to ask what he’s seen. It hasn’t always been pretty, and it’s cut both ways.

“As a CEO, I have come into four associations where the previous exec’s departure was related to staff going to the president or the board with complaints about salary, benefits or management style,” he says. “And at two associations there was high distrust of staff among the board members, with some board members calling around the office to see if the same story prevailed, others accusing staff of ‘hiding the ball.’”

How to get around such problems? Solid policies—and clear orientation on them—can help. Kleine shared one document in use at an association that explicitly lays out the boundaries:

  1. Board members shall not direct staff members; Board members shall not condone staff approaches to Board members unless it is to report illegal or grossly unethical activity.
  2. Staff reports should be comprehensive and detailed. Information should flow freely between board members and staff; however, staff members should not seek to influence the deliberation of the Board or its members outside of recommendations made in staff reports, board meetings, and committee meetings.

Policies, though, ought to be backed up by conversation. Kleine says he encourages staff to head off awkward, nosy conversations with board members at the pass. “A line I used effectively with staff is, ‘If a board member asks you how work is, answer as if it were your mother in law asking about how your married sex life is,’” Kleine says. “There is only one answer: ‘Fine.’ And move on.”

It is perhaps naïve to think that board orientation on board-staff boundaries might have helped the Bitcoin Foundation address its crisis in a less messy way. Clearly both sides of the organization’s leadership feels an urgency in expressing its divergent perspectives. But a clearer sense of how the association’s structure is designed to help them solve those problems could only have helped.

How does your association explain and police board-staff boundaries? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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