How a Supportive Relationship Between Board Chair and ED Led to Successful Change
By a Dedicated Board Member, Somewhere in USA
I was board chair when the organization made a big shift in its work to drive more community impact. To me, the most interesting thing that came out of that experience is the reflection that leadership and management are very different skills. When an organization decides to go through significant change, it is often a charismatic, high-energy leader who initiates it, gets people inspired, and drives it forward. But often a really inspirational leader still may not have the requisite skills to manage change. In my case, the Executive Director (ED) saw how much more impact we could have. He drove the organization to step up to its true potential. But there were a lot of other boxes to check.
So, this is a good story and a bad story all wrapped up. The new direction and the paths we were pioneering are a success story. But getting there was very bumpy because of the practical issues of being able to manage that process.
Challenges: Weak Management, Unengaged Board, Passive Board Chair
We went from a 1.5-person office (the ED and a half-time person) to a six- and then an eight-person office with increasingly higher-caliber and independent staff. The ED had no previous managerial experience. He did not know how to set clear goals, to create work plans, to coach staff, and to delegate properly. Also, the ED’s focus on his leadership role was distracting him from his managerial role. This resulted in lots of turnover. We probably went through three marketing people in succession. It got to a point where the ED’s credibility, not as a leader-inspirer, but as a manager was so much at issue that people looked to me to tell them what was really going on.
At this time, the board was also pretty weak. We had a couple of high-caliber people and a residual of people who showed up, didn’t add much, and didn’t do much. I had only been on one board before and was on this board only one year before I became board chair. I had no clear concept of the role of a board chair. To me, the ED ran the show. The ED was a “leadership” guy. I was the supporting cast. I worked with the ED, but not in a really robust way, to lead the board and co-lead the organization. We had a couple board members resign because what we were talking about was way more than what they had signed up for.
At one point, the rest of the board took the gavel away from me saying that the meetings were out of control. We had an agenda – 10 minutes for this and 10 minutes for that. They wanted to stick to the strict agenda. They thought I was not facilitating well. But we were going through ambitious and serious change about what the organization was trying to do and it challenged the nature of our model. I believed we needed to talk through things. We needed a generative board. But we had a board who wanted to focus on routine operations. When you are in a period of change, having a board that is tuned into the nature of the challenge the organization is dealing with is critical.
So, we had three strikes: the ED was ambitious but not able to control the process. I, as board chair, was not taking a strategic role. And we had a weak board that was intolerant of the type of conversation we needed to have given the state of the organization.
Strong Leadership from the Chair and Trust Were Essential
I realized I had to step up. We brought on more experienced, committed board members. We spent endless hours with key players to convince them that what we were doing was worthy and that we had not lost our way. At one point, half the staff was threatening to quit, or had already quit. I coached the ED. I had to talk him off the ceiling a couple of times. I told him, “You have to face this tough time. You can quit and do something else. Or you can be someone who can drive organizational change, someone who can grow and meet this challenge.” It made us close as human beings, we worked well in a tough situation. We went through this struggle together.
I did not realize that I needed to be the type of leader I was at my former for-profit company. Right from the beginning, I needed to understand that the ED works for the board, even more so than in a for-profit company. The connection of the board chair is closer to the ED than the rest of the board or even the executive committee. You cannot shield the rest of the board from what is going on, but the buck stops with the Board chair. If I was ever a board chair again, I would think of myself as I would a chair of a for-profit. You have to be a strong leader. You have to make sure the ED and the board are functioning as they should be. You have to be proactive and ready to respond when things get shaky. You need to know the capability of the ED as you go into change. It was essential to be the counter balance. This called on every bit of my leadership acumen. I don’t think most nonprofit board chairs expect to have to do the work I had to do in those three years.
Before this, to me the “real” world was the world of business. The world of nonprofits was not rigorous. What I know now is that the leadership challenges of a nonprofit organization which is truly pushing its potential is infinitely harder. In for-profit, leadership has more power. You can hire and fire more easily. In the not-for-profit world, it is not that way. You have to work differently.
So, the final lessons learned for an organization going through big change: If you have an ED who is a good leader and has good vision, you have to watch out for the ability to manage change. The board also has to be willing to be generative and adapt to the nature of the situation and not have a narrow preconception about how the board should run. The nature of the board chair and the ED relationship is also critical. There has to be deep trust.