Non-profit Boards of Directors have just one employee: the Executive Director (ED), or CEO. It goes without saying that having a positive, constructive relationship between the two is essential. But often, boards and management teams are too conflict-averse—they avoid creating tensions at all costs.
First, what tensions are they are avoiding? Mostly, they are normal and predictable ones—they are the everyday rub that occurs because the edges of accountability, delegation, oversight, and performance are being continually brought into contact.
Sure, this tension can be uncomfortable, but we believe that engaging with this tension is also important. So, we are often asked, how much tension is OK? Won’t permitting tension weaken an otherwise healthy organization? What if others (staff, funders, clients) witness such tension—won’t they lose confidence?
At Laridae, we do our best work in this small space between the ED and the board—in and amongst these tensions. In order to deeply understand an organization, we spend time learning about the current state of the relationship between the board and ED—it helps us gauge the level and quality of tension, what drives it, and how it influences decision-making and direction-setting.
A Captured Board
Consider this example of an organization we worked with in the past, where the board was enamoured with their ED. At the initial kickoff meeting, through much good-natured banter, we learned how successful this organization had become under this ED’s leadership—and by extension, the board’s leadership. Because we were about to go and speak with many stakeholders about the work and performance of the organization, we wanted to first understand, from the Board and management, their perception of what we would be likely to hear. In this case, unanimously, we learned that the feedback would be entirely positive.
It was not.
Unsurprisingly, like all organizations, they had some weaknesses, some blind spots, and some areas of under-performance. They were also doing a lot of great work, but it was clear that there were opportunities for improvement. So, how did this board get lulled into believing that “everything is perfect”? Why did the management team want to portray the organization as such?
Some boards, such as this one, become captured— a governance term that refers to boards that become unable to think and act independently. Captured boards begin to rubber-stamp management decisions, in turn becoming protective and defensive of their own record of accomplishment. In this closed-loop environment, over time, board and management can begin to see the world as they wish it to be (not as it is) and become one another’s unwavering advocates. They become reluctant to let in outsiders, such as consultants, to take a good look around. They can become quick to blame others for shortcomings. This can be a dangerous cycle of thinking to get into—especially when change, or external pressures, are afoot.
Healthy Tension Drives Success
Tension between a board and management is healthy. Great boards support their management. They ask hard questions and insist on answers—they follow up and follow through. This enables management to reflect on areas that they may not have considered, helps to ensure risks are identified and addressed, and makes for collaborative, informed decision-making. A board is at its best when it expects accountability and acts as a sounding board for the ED. Great EDs and CEOs value their board members most when they push and prod, ensuring oversight is thorough and that nothing has been taken for granted, or missed.
Governance rigor results in confidence and trust. This rigor is teamwork at its best. When a board sets clear direction, develops policies that establish clear boundaries for a management team to operate within, and when management identifies risks through an ongoing and predictable system, the conditions are in place for a strong, healthy partnership.
The best organizations talk openly to all stakeholders about their successes and their struggles—their true performance—month-in and month-out. Predictable transparency builds trust.
Every relationship between a board and senior management is slightly different. They bring their own unique strengths and challenges. We always encourage those we work with to reflect on how this relationship is working, and how it supports the long-term success of their organization.
We encourage you to openly discuss: how is the relationship between your board and ED/CEO? Is there a healthy level of tension? If not, why not? How could this relationship be improved?
Does your board-management relationship need a fresh perspective? Laridae offers a series of consulting services and training to help establish strong leadership dynamics from strategic planning, to governance and operational reviews, to succession planning and policy review.
In addition, our newly launched Leadership Development Program addresses many of these topics. Participants will graduate with practical knowledge to help them avoid common but costly missteps and to guide their organizations with newfound confidence and clarity. The first cohort begins in March 2020. Register now.