Dani Robbins

Officer Terms

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards on October 12, 2012 at 11:52 am

A friend of mine quoting the President and CEO of an organization on whose Board he serves said yesterday that “when the Board leadership turns over every year, the CEO, in effect becomes the Board Chair.” I hadn’t thought about it before but that is exactly right!

One of the more challenging aspects of serving as the CEO of a nonprofit is having a new boss every two years. I say two years because on average, most community based agencies have Board Chairs appointed for one-year terms renewable once, and most of the time, they are renewed. That means most CEOs get two years to work with their Chair – and even getting a new Chair every two years is a challenge! Just when you were getting used to the old chair, and just when that chair was really hitting her stride, we switch!

When the systems and processes are set, there is a Board Development and Strategic Plan in place, and the Board is clear on their roles and responsibilities, for the CEO it means a new boss, new goals (of the Chair not necessarily the organization) and new processes for communication.

When none of those things are in place and the by-laws/code of regulations call for one-year officer terms it means a lot more; it means starting from scratch, all over again, every year. It can feel like musical chairs, but with new music, new chairs, new people and no rules.

In those cases, the CEO may very well become the de facto Chair, because the Chair, who may or may not have been trained, may or may not have been oriented, and probably wasn’t groomed for the role, isn’t going to be in the seat for long enough to figure out the job.

The other reality is that unless the CEO was trained on building a board – and if the aforementioned sentence has happened, it is safe to assume he was not – he may not even know where his role ends and the Chair’s role begins.

There is, of course, another side to this arrangement. Sometimes it’s a good thing. Some Chairs are elected by default, meaning they’re there and willing but not necessarily suited or trained to the role. In those cases, one year terms are a blessing and offer the Board the opportunity to make a different decision.

In either case, and regardless of length of service, you don’t want your CEO to become the default Chair. It may not be terrible but neither is it governance.

The Board is responsible for governance, which includes Mission, Vision and Strategic Planning; Hiring, Supporting and Evaluating the Executive Director; acting as the Fiduciary Responsible Agent; Setting Policy and Raising Money.

One year officer terms, renewable once, offer a longer tenure and a higher likelihood of good governance. The 1st year is often a year of learning and by the 2nd year the Chair CEO relationship has clicked, things are getting done and the agency is moving forward and meeting it goals!

That’s what you want. Turnover in board leadership is healthy, as long as it’s planned turn over, with training, orientation and grooming so the Board and the CEO stay the course, or chart a new course together.

What’s been your experience with Officer terms? What does your agency do? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

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