Marla is a Senior Project Director at CompassPoint and Board Chair at DataCenter: A Research Justice Organization.
I often hear executives complain about their boards. Many of the comments sound like this:
- My board is disengaged. I understand that they are busy and I don’t want to ask for too much, but I can barely get them to come to meetings.
- My board doesn’t take responsibility for their own work. Why do I have to cajole them when they should be attending to their own affairs?
- My board doesn’t understand what our staff even does. They want to get involved in the day-to-day work and don’t see that they’re micromanaging.
I hear something underneath these exasperated comments—a fundamental misunderstanding of governance. Not so much what it is (although there’s some of that) but more how it happens. And I don’t just mean lack of understanding on the part of board members. I also mean a lack of understanding on the part of the executive.An interdependent partnership. While the board is ultimately responsible for governance, they do not govern alone or without guidance. That guidance comes in the form of a partnership with the executive director who shares responsibility for ensuring that the organization is legally, effectively, and ethically carrying out its work of protecting the public’s interest. Embrace the reciprocal relationship between the CEO and the board as neither independent nor dependent, but rather an interdependent leadership partnership that is grounded in deep trust and mutual accountability.
After all, it’s typically the CEO who provides the information, context, and insight that a board relies on in order to do its work.
To think more on how to provide context and guidance to boards, I recommend that executives read the article “Embracing Interdependence: The Relationship Between the Board and the CEO” in You and Your Nonprofit Board edited by Terrie Temkin and published by Charity Channel.
In it, author Pamela Leland urges us to embrace the reciprocal relationship between the CEO and the board as neither independent nor dependent, but rather an interdependent leadership partnership that is grounded in deep trust and mutual accountability. As Pam writes, “good governance is often due to the active engagement of the CEO who supports and facilitates positive board leadership.”
To conflate governance with boards of directors is not only inaccurate (governance is a process while the board of directors is a collective body) it belies real-world experience. The CEO guides the governance process each and every day.
Some of you might say that this is problematic, that boards should carry out their work independently of the CEO. In fact, I’ve seen many organizations actively pursue self-direction. The idea is that independence is the hallmark of a truly exceptional board; an expression of efficacy. This desire to serve without burdening the CEO is a well intended aspiration, but it’s a set-up. And like a true Sisyphean effort we’re left with feelings of inadequacy and guilt on one side (boards) and frustration and dissatisfaction on the other (executives).
And yet, this isn’t about dependence either—I think we can all agree that the rubber-stamping board going through the motions of governance without authentic engagement is a real danger.
It’s not either/or. It’s both/and. As Leland writes, the “board/CEO relationship exists along a continuum between dependence and independence.”
I think the word “embrace” is right on. Boards need to embrace the CEO as an active agent and partner in the governance process. And as a CEO, you need to embrace that you are responsible for ensuring that the board has the tools with which to govern.
Embracing reminds me of Simone Joyaux’s concept of enabling: “The process of empowering others. Giving people the wherewithal, opportunity, and power to act.” She explains that enabling is “reciprocity, relating, connecting, encouraging participation… It’s sharing responsibility and authority.”1
"Enabling helps others exercise their potential and power."
-- Simone Joyaux, ACFRE
Part of the enabling process includes education. Many board members don’t bring an understanding of governance as they begin their service. Moreover, they often lack the nonprofit experience and content knowledge to fully understand the work of the organization and the complexities of the nonprofit sector. When board members don’t know what they don’t know, they can’t direct their own education process and are guaranteed to neglect their own development. But executives can help—for the benefit of both you and your board.
Embracing, enabling, and educating
Below are three tangible strategies for you to shift the dynamics away from the resistance, reluctance, and resentment in those exasperated comments at the beginning of this article towards a more powerful embracing, enabling, and educating leadership partnership with the possibility of creating change in our communities.
“My board doesn’t take responsibility for their own work. Why do I have to cajole them when they should be attending to their own affairs?”
“I take responsibility for my board’s success. What do I need to do to ensure that they have the necessary support and information to do their job well?”
“My board is disengaged. I understand that they are busy and I don’t want to ask for too much, but I can barely get them to come to meetings.”
“How can I tap into strengths, passions, and interests of my board to motivate and energize them so that they are succesful?"
“My board doesn’t understand what our staff even does. They want to get involved in the day-to-day work and don’t see that they’re micromanaging.”
“It’s my job to create appropriate opportunities for the board to engage in our work so that they better understand what we do. I need to support their education regarding our respective roles in governance and management.”
Leaders: give it a try. See if embracing interdependence and taking an empowering approach in guiding your board can shift how your board and you work together. And, board members, we aren’t off the hook here. We have some responsibilities in this partnership, too. Stay tuned in coming weeks for part two of this blog, which will address the board’s role.
In the meantime, share comments you have had or have heard from EDs about boards and your suggestions on how to reframe them to embrace, enable, and educate.
Read Part 2.
- Read recent research studies and papers on leadership that Marla has authored or co-authored: UnderDeveloped (PDF), Daring to Lead 2011 (PDF), Ready to Lead? Next Generation Leaders Speak Out (PDF), Next Generation Organizations: 9 Key Traits (PDF).
Strategic Fund Development: Building Profitable Relationships that Last, 3rd Edition, by Simone P. Joyaux, ACFRE.