Managing a Board Without Controlling It

CEOs have the tricky job of working with a board without taking leadership out of the board's hands. One former executive and governance expert offers some tips on managing the balance.

You’re a new association executive, talking to your new board chair. “I’ve waited a long time to be in this position, and I intend to make the most of it,” the chair says. “I think it’s time to tear up the old strategic plan and put a new one in place.” In private, you sigh, roll your eyes. But then what?

It’s unlikely that a board chair will want to wield power in quite so authoritarian a manner. But for a new CEO, the recognition that you need to assert control—and quickly—can be one of those sweat-on-the-back-of-your-neck moments. And it’s all the more complicated because leadership isn’t simple in associations; you’re in charge, but so is the board.

There’s some good straight talk and advice in a recent series of blog posts published by the consultancy Ideas for Action. In “Seven Ways New Nonprofit Leaders Succeed the First Year on the Job,” Alan Davis, Jolene Knapp, CAE, and Deb Nystrom highlight the soft skills (listening and communication) and hard skills (training and strategy-setting) that can help new execs get through their first 12 months relatively unscathed. (A third post covers work-life balance.)

If they’re not excited, they shouldn’t be board members.

The posts are useful guides for newbies and perhaps helpful refreshers for long-tenured execs. But in terms of both groups, I was struck by one line in particular about board communication. “The board should be vitally interested in progress toward strategic goals,” they write. “Find a way to check on this.”

Easier said than done, of course. So I asked Knapp, who before joining Ideas for Action was for 20 years the executive director of the Society for College and University Planning, what keeps boards’ eyes off the ball. Why does their attention stray from strategy?

“Frankly, it’s human nature,” she says. “I think for many board members, at least in my experience, in their day jobs they’re not necessarily used to being in roles that require them to think or act or work strategically. When they’re faced with a situation that feels more comfortable to them, they’re going to migrate toward that. ‘What kind of box lunches should we have at next year’s conference?’ That kind of stuff is easy and fun.”

So the first step for the executive is to steer the conversation—not necessarily in terms of what the specific strategy should be, but certainly in terms of having a strategic discussion. “People will talk about and pay attention to what you put in front of them,” she says. “So my contention is that you need to be darned careful about what you put in front of them.”

There are practical ways for a CEO to move a board in that direction—Knapp recommends getting consent-agenda-type items out of the way in a phone call before the face-to-face meeting, for instance. But more importantly, the CEO can also manage the board (without explicitly steering it) by establishing a common agreement on those strategic goals.

“How many strategic priorities do you have, and are you sharp and crystal-clear about a shared understanding of what those priorities are and what does it mean to constitute success?” she says. “If the board is clearly focused in a way that provides a genuine filter for making choices about what to do and what not to do and how to allocate resources, there will be excitement about that. If they’re not excited about that, they shouldn’t be board members.”

Of course, board members may not always agree on those strategic priorities. And a CEO may wind up with a board chair who wants a tighter grip on the rudder. “If you have an incoming board chair who is kind of dead set on a more stale model of ‘We’re the board and you’re the staff and you’re here to support us,’ that’s a pretty hard thing to overcome,” Knapp says. Constant conversation with the board can help, but in the case of a particularly tough chair, it may help to start thinking long-term—what kind of power can you as a CEO use to encourage the inclusion of the kind of board leaders that can fulfill the organization’s vision?

This is a case, Knapp says, where the particular experience of the CEO can be an asset, because he or she has interactions with the talent pool within membership that the board may not. “I think the CEO and staff members tend to have a very different view of members’ contributions and membership’s leadership ability and commitment than, say, board members do,” she says. “I think there’s an insight to the kinds of people who are in the pool.” In the long run, CEOs can encourage board leaders with an enthusiastic and strategic mindset that can help feel good talent to volunteer down the line. It can be a problem that solves itself, so long as the CEO starts the process.

“I think The CEO has to have a really strong role [in identifying potential board members],” she says. “How visible that role is, I think is a different question.”

How do you handle the balance of power within your association’s board? 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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