How a CEO Can (Respectfully) Manage a Board

Associations operate best when staff and board don’t get tangled. But that doesn’t mean executives should abdicate their responsibility to bring out the best in volunteer leaders---or help find better ones.

Where is a nonprofit CEO most likely to stumble? All sorts of places, of course—finances, day-to-day management, future planning, and more. But it might be helpful think about all of those potential missteps in the context of the board. What can a board do to you in response to those missteps? What is it likely to do to you, if you fall short?

In saying this, I don’t mean to suggest that the board-CEO relationship is inherently adversarial. Indeed, that’s the first mistake a lot of new executives make, according to nonprofit leadership consultant Sean Kosofsky. During a webinar last week, “The Six Biggest Mistakes Executive Directors Make,” he argued that too often CEOs see their boards as “a challenge to be overcome,” rather than partners in a conversation about the future of the organization.

Most people built their board by grabbing people who were just around them and forgot to give them an orientation.

And a whole host of negative things flow out of a failure to build a partnership with the board. Fundraising goals—any sort of big-picture goals, really—don’t get met. The CEO isn’t clear about what his or her vision is, so the board feels entitled to ask pretty much anything of the CEO—who then guiltily feels obligated to provide it. People don’t take a close look at the finances, and there’s confusion about job roles, to the point where board members can begin to feel comfortable dictating to staff.

In short, an unholy mess. And the association world at large still isn’t doing a great job of addressing it: In a study last year, only 45 percent of association board members said they had a clearly defined orientation process, and organizations still needed improvement in talking about strategic planning and decision-making.

But communication is more than just establishing a regular board orientation process, nice as that is to have. It’s also about regular rapport-building with the board, especially the chair, to understand where they think the organization is at, because that thinking may not necessarily hew to reality. Kosofsky recommends twice-a-month check-ins between the CEO and board chair to talk numbers, programming, and current challenges. But those conversations should also be just that—conversations. “Don’t just dive into work,” he suggests. “We are people. We want to enjoy each other. Trust and rapport will build a strong organization.”

So what stands in the way of all that? Inertia can’t be entirely discounted. And weak leadership everywhere is endemic. But I also think that many CEOs, cautioned to think of the board as the true owners of the organization—they have firing power over the CEO, after all—may feel that they’re overstepping their bounds in moving the board in a more profitable direction. That may require some tough love if you have a weak, poorly oriented board. So I asked Kosofsky about how best to send that message without giving the perception that you’re taking the reins from the organization’s elected leaders.

First, he said, recognize the weakness you inherited with clear eyes. “Most people have stepped into situations with a low-performing board—let’s be honest, I think that’s most boards,” he says. “Most people built their board by grabbing people who were just around them—friends, family, people we like—and forgot to give them an orientation, or tell them what their responsibilities were going to be.”

He recalled an experience at a state-level charitable nonprofit, where he was hired by a 12-person board with the understanding that it would establish fundraising targets. Half pulled their weight. The other half, at crunch time, had not only fallen short but offered to resign—a move that was bad optics and would torpedo the organization, according to its bylaws.

In response, Kosofsky said, he created a process where the individual board members who wanted to leave would resign and be replaced individually. The house-cleaning was an opportunity for him to outline clearer requirements for new board members and to establish an ethos for them. “We’re not running a kaffeklatsch or a small soccer club, we’re running an organization that’s trying to change the world,” he said. “That means we don’t have time to mess around. I need a serious, sophisticated board.”

It’s likely that your board doesn’t include that much drama and lassitude. But in every context, board members are looking for guidance and direction just as much as the most talented VPs in your organization are. They want to know where you stand, and if you can’t communicate that to the people around you, the confusion that gets sown is as much your responsibility as anybody else’s.

What do you do to clearly communicate direction to your volunteer leaders and to help orient them? Share your experiences in the comments.

(Cecilie_Arcurs/Getty Images)

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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