Board Cafe: The CompassPoint Board Model for Governance and Support: Part 2

Board Cafe

The CompassPoint Board Model for Governance and Support: Part 2

By Jan Masaoka

Last month we introduced the conceptual model that works behind the scenes at the Board Café. In this model, the nonprofit board has two types of responsibilities: a) for governance and oversight in its legal, formal role, and acting as a body, and b) for support and assistance, as board members act as individuals. For example, in its governance role, the board hires, evaluates, and if necessary, fires its executive director. The board acts as a body-the board chair is not the executive's supervisor. In their support role, individuals (including the board chair) act as advisors, coaches, and partners to the executive. (This article, like all Board Café articles, is archived for free access at

This month we take the CompassPoint Board Model to a frequently thorny question: Who's responsible for the board doing its job? Or perhaps more practically speaking: Who's responsible when the board ISN'T doing its job?

Who's responsible for the board doing its job?
Executive directors are often frustrated with boards that are inactive and passive. These executive directors cry out, "My board doesn't do anything!" But the frustration comes from more than the lack of board activity. It also comes from a sense of helplessness, a sense that there is nothing the executive can-or should-do to get the board going. In many instances, both board members and executives believe that it would be inappropriate for the executive to play a leadership role with the board. Many strong executives draw back from appearing to provide too much direction to their "bosses."

This approach comes from the conventional wisdom that "the board sets policy, and the staff implements it." This statement fails to distinguish between the governing and supporting roles of the board, and in practice, often devolves into arguments over what is policy, and what is not.

In fact, telling an inactive board-or even an inactive board telling itself-that it should be active is seldom an effective strategy. Even if one or two board members insist that all board members must be active, little is likely to change. In short, an approach that makes the board solely responsible for its own functioning is an approach that succeeds with strong boards, but simply doesn't work with weak boards.

The approach we advocate in the CompassPoint Board Model may at first seem surprising, but in fact is common practice by many seasoned executive directors: the executive director must be largely responsible for the board fulfilling its governance role.

In some ways, this framework presents a paradox similar to the role-switching between board and the executive. The truth is that the executive director is in the best position for ensuring the effective functioning of the board. He is the primary staff support to the board, attends meetings, and is usually more in touch with board members than anyone else. Moreover, she is responsible for the organization's performance, and, since effective board governance and support are both needed for high performance, she must develop an effective board for the sake of organizational performance.

Perhaps more importantly, this approach works.

The executive director cannot ensure the board's effectiveness by ordering board members to perform various tasks or to adopt certain attitudes. The executive can work more closely with individual board members, take an active role in the recruitment and orientation of effective board members, and develop processes that she and the board can use to work together for better governance.

The very great advantage to this approach is that it works. It works when there is a strong executive and a strong board, when there is a weak executive and a strong board, and when there is a strong executive and a weak board.

Management expert Peter Drucker has long said that the effective functioning of the corporate board is the responsibility of the chief staffperson. This responsibility can be written into the executive director's job description, and should be one of the responsibilities for which the board holds the executive director accountable.

As paradoxical as it may seem at first, it makes complete sense for the board to evaluate the executive director's performance on how well he or she has elicited board effectiveness. And the wise executive director willingly accepts the responsibility, knowing that with a strong board there will be a working partnership, and knowing that in the absence of a strong board, he or she must be a prime mover in developing one.

Many veteran board members and executive directors find that the CompassPoint Board Model articulates principles that they have practiced for years. Less experienced board members and executive directors will find that it can act as a decoder-decoding the puzzling ways that boards act at times.

Original publication date: 08/13/2003

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