Board Cafe: Accepting Responsibility for the Board

Board Cafe

Accepting Responsibility for the Board

By Jan Masaoka

Who is responsible for the board's doing its job? And a different question: who's responsible for "fixing" a board that's gone wrong?

The natural answer might be: the board is responsible for the board! Or possibly, it's the board officers who are responsible for the board. Or sometimes: it's a shared responsibility of the board and the executive director.

The Board Café agrees with Peter Drucker: The responsibility for the board's effective work-both governance and support-is the responsibility of the executive director. In fact, the board should evaluate the executive's performance in part on how effectively the board does its job.

This can sound paradoxical at first, but veteran successful executives know it's true. They consistently acknowledge that they take on their shoulders the responsibility for the board's doing its work-probing ideas and plans, supporting the execution of those strategies, and evaluating executive performance. What a paradox: an executive must recruit and support a board that is the opposite of comfortable-a board that will challenge him, evaluate him, and be able to independently assess the organization's performance. If he doesn't-the board will negatively evaluate him for it.

Let's take the situation where there's an engaged board with strong board members working with a strong leader in the executive director/CEO role. In such an instance, the question may not even be asked. Shared responsibly comes naturally. The executive director may find herself both supporting and leading the board, engaging them in strategic decision-making, while at the same time the board challenges the executive, tests plans with rigorous inquiry, and engages the executive in strategic thinking.

Next let's consider the organization with a strong board and a weak executive. Board members may begin with guidance and constructive feedback; provide an executive or fundraising coach, or even trying to compensate for the executive's weaknesses themselves. Over time, they will remove the weak executive. In fact, Daring to Lead 2006, a new national study of nonprofit executives, found that one-third are either fired or forced out of their jobs-evidence that boards take action when they see problems (the study can be downloaded at ).

But what if there's a strong executive director, and a board of directors that adds up to less than the sum of its parts? In this situation, board members may feel that "things are going fine and there really isn't that much we have to do." The executive is likely to feel unsatisfied with the board and wish they were "engaged" or raising money, but after all, they aren't getting in the way. These are the executives who find themselves muttering, "How can they tell me how to do my job, when they can't even take responsibility for getting a quorum." Or even, "I just don't see the point of the board if they're not going to raise money."

These are the cases-remarkably common-where the question arises: just who IS responsible for the board anyway?

The successful executive director holds himself or herself accountable for the success or failure of the organization-and that means being accountable for the board as well. And there are three ways that CEOs can change boards: by changing who is on the board, by changing the way the board works, and by changing how she as the CEO works with the board. None can be neglected!

Original publication date: 5/06/2006

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