How Executive Directors and Boards Work Together
Thomas Wolf writes: “In my book, Effective Leadership for Nonprofit Organizations: How Executive Directors and Boards Work Together, I share case histories that illuminate various management and governance challenges and how they have been addressed. The following example illustrates how a board can help an otherwise effective executive director improve clear deficiencies in his performance.”
Boris was the executive director of a nonprofit organization that provided theatrical performances throughout the summer to tens of thousands of people in seven states. Generally, Boris was the model executive director. He had been with his organization for almost a decade, and as one board member put it, “like an old shoe, he fit well.” He presided over a $2 million budget, a full-time staff of ten, and a seasonal staff of over seventy who carried out the various summer activities. With so many individuals under his jurisdiction spread over such a large geographic area, and with many of them moving from one location to another, Boris, and the board, felt it was imperative to develop detailed personnel policies that ensured the employees knew where they stood and the organization was protected. The completion of the personnel manual was an accomplishment much celebrated by board and staff.
But there was another reason why the personnel manual was important. Boris was often not a good supervisor, and the board thought that providing him with a kind of guidebook with documented policies might help. He was often too busy to give explicit instructions to those he supervised, and then he was impatient when employees didn’t seem to understand what he wanted. Most could deal with his idiosyncrasies—“Boris is just being Boris,” they joked. But for one employee, it was no joking matter. Boris and Joan had an increasingly toxic working relationship.
Boris’s side of the story was that Joan just wouldn’t follow directions and always made excuses. Often, when he asked her why a particular task had not been completed, she would tell him that she had done exactly what he had asked, but that those instructions had been garbled and confusing. “If you didn’t get what you wanted, it is not my fault.” In other cases, she said that the task had been unreasonable, impossible to accomplish in the time allotted. On some occasions, Boris would get angry, setting off Joan, who would return to her office, and according to Boris, “throw a tantrum, upsetting her colleagues.”
Finally, it just became too much for Boris. Joan made what he considered a lame excuse one time too many. He lost his temper and fired Joan on the spot, telling her to take her things and go. The next day, Boris had the bookkeeper mail Joan her check for back pay (including unused vacation time), plus another to cover two weeks of severance, even though it was unclear from the personnel manual whether this was required, since he felt he had fired her “for cause.” Also included was a letter confirming that Joan was no longer employed by the organization. Boris called the president of the board and told her what had happened. “I didn’t handle it well,” Boris conceded. “I hope Joan doesn’t complain to one of our funders or to the state.”
There was much concern on the part of the board. As much as they liked Boris, this had not been the first time there had been such difficulties, though it was by far the worst. The annual personnel evaluation just a few months earlier had addressed the issue, and Boris promised to improve. But concern mounted even further when a week later a group of employees approached the board president expressing their upset over the incident. “This is awkward,” they conceded. “We know we are not supposed to approach the board directly. But Boris is our supervisor, and he is the problem.” It was not necessarily that they did not agree with the decision, they said, but personnel procedures had not been followed. What good was a personnel manual if the executive director could ignore it, especially one like Boris who had a temper problem?
The board was fond of Boris. They admired his accomplishments. But he clearly had a problem. He was going to need help. After much discussion, they decided that putting Boris on probation was not the right move. They asked him whether he would agree to work with an executive coach who could help work through the problem. When Boris agreed, the staff was informed and told that they would be asked to help solve the problem by providing confidential opinions about Boris and about their working relationship with him to the coach. They were assured that their jobs would not be in jeopardy. They should be frank and the more honest they were, the sooner the problem would get fixed.
The executive coach conducted the interviews and subsequently worked with Boris to come up with a plan to address his weaknesses. The most significant step, readily agreed to by the board, was the creation of a new staff position, a managing director, to ease the pressure on Boris and to allow him to focus on what he did best. Though Boris himself would be doing the hiring of this new person, the coach would help him identify someone with the right set of skills.
Part of the process of working through the issues was getting Boris to acknowledge the consequences and potential consequences of his actions. He had upset his staff. He had wasted a great deal of board and staff time for what in the end he described as “my childishness.” More importantly, he had never thought about all the ramifications of his actions. Joan could have taken the organization to court and possibly won a judgment, or at the very least, cost the organization lots of money and time in legal fees. She could have bad-mouthed the organization to funders she knew. The fact that she didn’t wasn’t the point. Boris had put the organization at risk.
Later, a meeting was called at which senior staff reporting to Boris, key trustees, and Boris himself met to discuss the plan, with the coach serving as mediator. The result was that everyone felt that the problem had been addressed, relationships were strengthened, and the organization could get back to itscore business. Boris continued to meet with the coach for a few weeks thereafter as things continued to improve.
–© Thomas Wolf from Effective Leadership for Nonprofit Organizations: How Executive Directors and Boards Work Together, Allworth Press, 2013. Buy the book.