You’re not the boss of me – board chairs and CEOs
I am not a big fan of a board chairperson serving as the direct supervisor of a nonprofit’s executive director.
I’ve seen too much that can go wrong:
- An overbearing, micro-managing board chair can make a CEO absolutely miserable, driving many a CEO out of his or her organization.
- It’s too tempting for a Board chair to make decisions when asked by the CEO that are rightly those for the full board’s deliberation.
- There is something about the elevation of the position that enables a board chair, when asked by the CEO, to offer advice on issues that he or she isn’t really sufficiently qualified to answer.
- Executive directors can skillfully use their relationships with board chairs to bypass consultation with the full board.
- Board chairs are too willing to set the priorities for the Executive Director, instead of consulting with the full board on where it would like the focus to be.
- Executive directors can avoid responsibility for tough management decisions, passing them off to the board chair to make.
It’s hard to get strong board member engagement when important issues come to the board already decided. Or even worse, when the board is kept in the dark on important issues — only to unearth them at a later date.
In my board playbook, the full board and only the full board is the boss of the executive director. But then I’m a big advocate of many aspects of John Carver’s policy governance ® model where the board instructs the CEO only through the creation of policies that outline priorities and frame management decision boundaries.
I believe that we would have much stronger boards if the board chair spent more of her or his time mentoring and engaging the other board members rather than focusing all of his or her attention on the relationship with the CEO. And vice versa… rather than expending so much energy on the board chair, a CEO’s time would be better spent building relationships with and enabling other board members.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t reasons for a strong partnership between the board chair and the executive director. Often board chairs will team up with the CEO for community or government relations, or donor cultivation and solicitation. CEOs should consult with their chair when they aren’t sure whether an action or decision falls within their prerogative or if it is one that needs full board consultation.
I’ve heard board chairs say that they have a good mentoring relationship with their CEOs. While I don’t doubt that is true in some cases, I wonder if that is a good thing or not. I’d much rather see a CEO assemble his or her own kitchen cabinet or find an experienced colleague to serve as the mentor than to invest that responsibility with the board chair. Besides, I happen to think that we’ve made the job of the board chair so impossibly big that few want to take it, and that this practice is one of the primary reasons for that.
But that’s what I think. How about you?