Board Cafe: Support Your Local Executive Director

Board Cafe

Support Your Local Executive Director

By Jan Masaoka 

As a board chair myself (of the San Francisco Foundation Community Initiative Funds), it often occurs to me that the executive director and staff tend to hear mostly criticism from us on the board.  Of course, in our governance role, the board is fulfilling its responsibilities by overseeing the finances and sometimes asking for additional reports, by critiquing drafts of agreements, and by evaluating the executive director’s work.  But in the role of board members exercising our support roles (rather than the board as a body exercising its governance role), I think we on the board could give our ED and staff a little more support.  This month’s Main Course article makes some suggestions in this area.

Most nonprofit executive directors (CEOs) need several kinds of support from their boards: praise, constructive criticism, feedback/observations, backing them up to the staff and the community, encouragement, and leadership.  One finding from CompassPoint’s recent national study of 1000+ executive directors is how much EDs want and value support from the board.  And board members often ask, “Our organization has a great executive director, and I don’t know any way to be helpful to her, not just to the organization.  What are some ideas?”

  • CEOs, like other employees, benefit from recognition and praise for accomplishments and work well done.  This might be a small comment on the phone—“You’ve done a good job with the publicity on this project”—or an announcement during a board meeting—“I want to take a minute to acknowledge the skill with which our executive director handled this delicate situation.”
  • CEOs appreciate expressions of personal support.  The day after a board meeting, call the executive director to touch base:  “It must have been hard for you yesterday when the board turned down your plan for a new program.  Part of our thinking was our concern that you and the staff are stretching yourselves too thin.  Would you be interested in talking with me more about that?”  
  • Make sure that an annual evaluation of the ED takes place along with a salary review.
  • An unexpectedly common complaint of executives is that they have to prod the board into conducting a performance evaluation, a discussion about raises, and setting personal objectives for the ED.  Bring concerns and criticisms, too, to the executive director.  It may make for a less pleasant conversation, but it demonstrates the board’s seriousness about governance.  
  • Beyond personal support, the board needs to insist that organizational objectives and structure make the CEO job sustainable.  Make sure that there is an adequate infrastructure—a human resources director or fundraising director, for example—to allow executives to stay on the job without exhausting themselves.  Such positions—which are easy to neglect because they increase expenses—also make it easier to hire your next executive.  If an organization relies on a superhero executive, it will be impossible to replace that person.
  • Let the staff and the community know that you support the ED.  A word from a board member can make a world of difference:  “I wish you knew our ED.  He’s TERRIFIC.”  or “I hope that you and the other staff know how much confidence we have in the ED.”  
  • Take care of the board’s business.  Don’t put the CEO in a position of having to nag you or others on the board to fulfill promises.  Take your conduct on the board as seriously as it deserves, and draw attention to others who do the same. 

Original publication date: 6/26/2002

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