Dani Robbins

Serving at the Pleasure of the Board

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Strategic Plans on July 3, 2014 at 9:21 am

Nonprofit executive leaders (called executive directors, president and/or CEOs) serve at the pleasure of their board. Boards are made up of community leaders that, collectively, serve as the “owners” of an organization. They are responsible for fulfilling The Role of the Board including hiring, evaluating and supporting their executive. That executive is responsible to support the organization’s mission and goals; guide, support, and serve the board in establishing goals, developing policies, securing and stewarding resources, and implementing a strategic plan; and to provide leadership and direction to staff.

The individual members of your board may or may not know any of that. They may or may not have served on other boards or understand their job, your job, the mission of your organization or how that mission gets implemented. They may or may not understand the program and services of your organization or the role it plays in the community.

Boards that don’t understand their role can’t perform their role.

One of the things that new executive directors are often shocked by is the amount of time they need to spend developing their board. It is an enormous commitment to develop a board of directors and one that is critical to the success of your organization. As mentioned in The Role of the Nonprofit CEO “The CEO assists in building the board, both initially through encouraging an appropriate prospecting, vetting, and orientation process and on-going though Board education and evaluation. It is the CEO’s role to support good board process, and the board development committee’s role to lead the process.”

Board development is a role of the executive leader and because you serve at the pleasure of the board, the safest thing you can do is train your board as to their role, your role, the need for your agency and the impact it makes.

I have seen boards hire a new executive director to implement a change the board wanted and then fire that leader when the change that they asked for felt too difficult. I’ve seen boards hire the wrong executive and then let that executive stay because they didn’t have a plan to replace them. I’ve seen boards (and you have too) promote staff that were in no way ready for a leadership role, because they didn’t have the time or the inclination to do a search. I’ve seen boards agree to a change management plan to change the culture of the organization and then get nervous when it felt too uncomfortable and consider firing their executive, who instead resigned in disgust. Discomfort and sometimes fear is an inherent part of change and it’s a part that we have to expect, and then manage.

It should go without saying (but, of course, it never does) that people are more likely to be happy with what you’re doing, when they know what you’re doing.

Serving at the pleasure of 18 or 20 or 24 people – even 12 – is a pretty high bar. I always joke that it’s hard to get 20 people to agree upon what they want for lunch, let alone what the annual goals are for an organization, but we must. The board sets the strategic direction to guide the work of an organization and before you can plan, you have to build.

Boards have to be intentionally built, properly educated and evaluated. As included in The Best Advice you will get the board you build. “Board development is an intentional process that includes strategic prospecting, recruiting, and orienting for new board members and educating, evaluating and recognizing current board members, coupled with a strategic plan (that is being followed) and the introduction of generative discussions.

Strong CEOs build strong boards. As discussed in greater detail in the Innovative Leadership Workbook for Nonprofit Executives “the CEO’s role in board development is to understand the work of the board and its processes, and support the implementation of each. CEOs play a primary role in building the board. As such, they have the opportunity to assemble a board that can take the organization to new heights.’  ‘The CEO assists in building the board to which she will ultimately report and also makes recommendations, staffs board committees, and supports the board’s success.  CEOs do not have the authority to add board members.

In the case of board development, CEO’s should also:

  • Support the recruitment of potential board members; arrange and attend meetings with prospective board members and the board or committee chair, share the agency’s vision, mission, and board processes, including time, giving and getting expectations, and assess the capacity of the prospective member to fit on the team;
  • Manage the board development process, including the spreadsheet of terms of office;
  • Ensure board training and evaluation.”

Having an intentionally built board is not enough, you also have to encourage that board to go through a strategic planning process and you, as the exec, have to be able to operationalize that plan to align the work of the organization.

In the absence of agreed upon goals, there is no objective way to for you to be evaluated. In those cases, you as the exec will either receive no evaluation or worse, your board will rely on how they “feel” about things. Feel is not objective and feel is not safe for leaders.

Any day can be the day you quit or get fired. Over the years, I have had to explain to a board chair why co-mingling is unethical, to a different chair why yelling at another board member to get a donation is not effective, and to yet another chair that if he want to fire a member of my team, he would have to fire me first.

What if I didn’t have goals that I was expected to implement? What if there were no metrics to gauge my leadership? What if the day after I had one of those conversations was the day the committee was meeting to do my evaluation?

These jobs we hold are not for the faint of heart. They’re tough and they’re lonely. They are also incredibly fulfilling, an honor and a privilege.

What’s been your experience in serving at the pleasure of a board? Do you have any amusing, scary or appalling stories to share? 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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