Leadership part two: Working with your board

publication date: Feb 6, 2017
author/source: Denny Young

Denny YoungLast week, I challenged senior staff to own their knowledge, power, and experience.  To proudly be their titles.  Yes, it’s easy to offer this advice but harder to enact it. Here are some specific ideas about managing your Board of Directors. 

Research I’ve done on Board recruitment shows a significant lack of structure and thoughtful preparation. Guided by the nominations (or similar) committee, the process is often haphazard, done in a rush, and neither candidates nor members are pleased.  This failure by senior volunteers is an opportunity for clever CEOs. 

Jump in. Always be recruiting; watching for future leaders.  Present them to the committee in an official manner that respects its responsibility and power. In my experience, senior volunteers are happy when the work of identifying and cultivating prospects is done for them. Let’s say you have three vacancies to fill at your next AGM.  No later than six months before that meeting, present at least six candidates to the committee.  Meet one-on-one with the Chair first. Never blindside power.  Make sure that the report on each prospect is a thorough one that demonstrates your brilliant research and thorough preparation. Include your assessment of each candidate’s strengths and weaknesses.  You want to look professional and objective. Respect the committee and give it reasonable options. 

Encourage members to meet each candidate and choose those for election. If a member tries to go around the process, it’s a sign that no process exists, or hasn’t been communicated.  Insist that one be created – that it always includes you – and that it be followed.  Sell this, not as something you need, but as a proper process that respects the candidates, allows them to meet the people (Board and CEO) with whom they’d be working, ensures that they are treated fairly, and gives them a chance to fully understand the expectations. Such a system is also respectful of your stakeholders who can trust that leadership is chosen in an open, fair and transparent way.

Board meetings are another opportunity to own your title. Bring reports that show your vision, leadership ability and competence.  Never ask open-ended questions like:  “what should we do about….?”, or “how should we manage…”  Those invite interference and raise doubts about your ability. 

For instance, if your strategic plan calls for the creation of a new program, bring a report that shows two or three options. Again, start by meeting one-on-one with the Chair. Provide objective analysis that shows the pros/cons of each.  Perhaps one is more costly, but will serve more clients; while the other is more economical, but will reach fewer. This helps the Board to focus on its proper role. It forces it to wrestle with specific questions like: Is the priority to hold the line on expenses, or to serve as many as possible?  Nowhere in your report should you ask how to manage the program’s operations.  If one or two can provide that advice, meet with them before the meeting. Then be sure to highlight that advice. You’ll look great for having consulted with expert peers, and they’ll be allies.

When the Board make decisions, give it credit for the outcome. Sure you did the lion’s share of the preparation and, because of you, the decision was sound.  But don’t diminish the Board by suggesting that its final decision-making role was inconsequential. Report back on every decision. In the above scenario, that would either be: “Your wise decision to limit our launch of the new program, means that the organization has kept within budget this year and will not run a deficit.”  Or, “Your wise decision to put serving people ahead of cost savings means we have no waiting list.”

Finally, a few words about your day-to-day relationship with Board members. Information is power. You’ve got it. Use it. Between meetings, produce a steady stream of short emails designed specifically for them. Silence breeds suspicion.  If they don’t hear from you, they’ll fear nothing is happening or worse, some crisis is being hidden.  Yes, some will complain about too much information.  Nevertheless, choose sharing over silence. 

Regularly meet one-on-one with members. Take each one out to lunch at least once a year.  Often those I feared in meetings became my best lunch buddies. People frequently behave very differently one-on-one. It’s a great way to build trust and avoid confrontational outbursts during meetings. 

Is this a lot of work? Yup.  But isn’t managing interfering, mistrusting Boards harder?  

Next time:  Managing your finance committee.

Denny Young is a Professor at Humber College, and Coordinator of its prestigious Fundraising Management Postgraduate Certificate program. He has been in the profession for over 25 years and shown exemplary leadership as an executive, educator and mentor. His experience includes senior fundraising and communications roles in a number of sectors including health, social service, and the arts.


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