Following-up on LLC’s recent webinar, Daring to Lead 2011: Leadership Development & Support for Nonprofit Leaders, presenter Marla Cornelius addresses a number of participant questions and comments that were raised during the session.
Several people who attended the recent Daring to Lead 2011 webinar raised a number of important questions about boards and asked for insights into the often paradoxical nature of the executive director and board relationship. This isn’t a surprise considering the sector has been hotly debating the question of board performance for many years. And although there has been significant attention paid to these issues, executives continue to be frustrated with antiquated board structures and disappointed in board members’ efforts. Considering that we are not much further along today than in years past, the question “How do we improve board performance?” has become almost rhetorical.
In Daring to Lead 2011 and its companion brief, The Board Paradox (download at www.daringtolead.org), we explored the board executive partnership in depth. Key findings echo many of the same issues and concerns reported in prior Daring to Lead studies:
- While executive directors tended to give boards relatively high marks when asked about overall performance, their responses to more specific questions often contradicted that assessment —and suggest that boards are neglecting critical governance responsibilities.
- Despite these board performance challenges, most executive directors are not spending a significant percentage of their time working with and supporting their boards.
- Executive directors who spend more time working with their boards demonstrate higher satisfaction with board performance.
These data suggest that perhaps we don’t need new answers; we need a new question: How can Executive Directors help their boards make a more meaningful impact?
Conventional wisdom tells us that boards should be self-managed and set organizational strategy and policies that the executive implements. Yet we know from real-world experience that in organizations with high functioning and impactful boards the executive director is usually central to board work.
This makes sense to me. Who better to help a board understand an organization’s needs than the professional hired to run it?
And yet, it seems that many executives and board members remain committed to the notion that boards should be initiating and leading on their own. Perhaps it’s time that we reframe what we think ought to be by embracing what we know is.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that we let boards off the hook for poor performance. What I am suggesting is a leadership partnership where executives and boards equally share responsibility for meeting the needs, and accomplishing the goals, of the organization they are both accountable to.
Here are a set of recommendations for executives and boards to consider:
Executives: Invest a Significant Amount of Time in Your Board
Daring to Lead suggests that a significant number of executives are spending too little of their time supporting and working with their boards of directors—and that executives who invest more time in the board are more satisfied with board performance. Executives should:
- Recognize their own essential role in helping to improve the performance of the board
- Invest time, in partnership with the board, in identifying and cultivating new board members.
- See their boards’ success as interdependent with their own. Establish frequent and regular communications with board leaders to establish a strong partnership and mechanisms to provide one another support.
Boards: Implement Board Practices Widely Recognized as Effective
Despite decades of research and a growing body of literature about effective practices for nonprofit boards, many boards are not fulfilling their most basic responsibilities or taking even simple measures to improve their performance. Some basic steps all boards should take include:
- Creating a job description or list of responsibilities for the board as a whole, and recruiting board members who have the skill sets needed to help the board fulfill those responsibilities.
- Creating a statement of expectations for individual board members, and conducting an annual or periodic assessment to determine whether board members are meeting those expectations.
- Conducting an annual performance review of the executive director.
- Conducting periodic training for board members on how to read the organization’s audit and financial reports.
- Engaging in financial or business planning to better understand the organization’s financial sustainability.
Marla Cornelius, CompassPoint
Daring to Lead 2011 co-author