Stop Driving Your Board Chair Nuts!

board chair nuts

Why would anybody in her right mind want to be a board chair? You’ve got to be a little bit crazy, no?

Sure, I’d be delighted to take on a second full time job managing a bunch of very busy volunteers, some of whom actually show up for meetings, and simultaneously attempt to supervise AND partner with a Type A Executive Director who doesn’t always feel she needs a partner and certainly not a boss.”

Crazy.

Well, we all know that different folks are motivated to leadership positions for different reasons. Hopefully passion for the mission is at the top of this list. There’s also duty, ego, responsibility, strong leadership DNA….

Or maybe someone was voted in during an ill-timed trip to the restroom.

Whatever the motivation, this role is no walk in the park and anyone who is NOT a board chair should be grateful to that person who IS.

Note: I’m not focusing on the board leader who is toxic – we’ll save that for another post.

Today we focus on the good board chair. I want that board chair to feel valued and valuable. I want the experience to be rewarding and not torturous.

Strike that. I don’t want that. Your organization needs that to thrive.

And so I went out and spoke to some good board chairs.

My hope is that you will hear what drives them nuts and think about your organization can ensure that your board chair doesn’t go over the edge.

9 THINGS THAT DRIVE BOARD LEADERS NUTS ABOUT THEIR BOARDS

Responses fell into two categories: how board members drive them nuts and how staff drives them nuts.

There are a lot of nuts.

First, the boards…

  1. Unprepared board members who ask questions at the meeting that show just how unprepared they are. They don’t even realize how embarrassing that is.
  2. Board members who tell the chair to keep them in mind for “whatever I need” but when asked to take on a responsibility they say, “That’s not really an interest of mine but please keep me in mind for whatever you need.”
  3. Committee reports that open (and close) with, “Oh, we didn’t have a chance to meet so we have nothing new to report.”
  4. Rogue board members who decide they can “fix” things and have discussions with staff members or (worse!) funders without seeking counsel from the chair or Executive Director first.
  5. The board member who does not own his fundraising obligation and looks for every imaginable person to blame.
  6. The toxic board member who is, unfortunately, also our biggest donor.
  7. The blatant lack of respect – staff thinks the board has nothing to contribute and board members are sure they can do the work of staff way better.
  8. Board members that interact inappropriately with staff – disrespectful and sometimes bordering on abuse.
  9. A discussion ensues about fundraising obligations and board members start making overtly racist comments without even realizing it.

3 THINGS THAT DRIVE BOARD LEADERS NUTS ABOUT THE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR

  1. The Executive Director who treats the board chair like a nuisance.
  2. The Executive Director who forgets whom she works for or treats the board chair like a lame duck, taking advantage of the knowledge that the chair will turn over soon enough.
  3. The Executive Director who is also the founder, has 100% of the power in the organization, and doesn’t see it as a partnership.

4 THINGS BOARD LEADERS SAY DRIVES THEM NUTS ABOUT THE JOB ITSELF

Actually, there’s one more category that came up… things that drive board leaders nuts about the position.

  1. I don’t always understand my role or my power. I worry because I am unclear on the first that I am at risk of misusing the latter.
  2. It’s really difficult to get everyone on the same page about what a great board member looks like so that we recruit well.
  3. I feel ill-equipped so often. Managing volunteers is so different from managing my staff.
  4. I am a woman of color leading a mostly white board and the power dynamics are really challenging.

WHAT CAN THE BOARD DO TO SUPPORT AND RETAIN THESE BOARD LEADERS?

First let’s remember. These words and thoughts come from board members – volunteers – deeply committed to the organization and to doing a great job. But there are a lot of obstacles in their way that make a tough job tougher still.

Here are four things the board can do to keep your very capable board chair from the brink.

1) Every board member should ask themselves these two questions:

  1. Do YOU want to be the board chair?
  2. Are you grateful that your board chair raised her hand?

Fess up. You probably don’t want the job (especially after reading the list above.)

SO SHOW IT! Appreciate your board chair. Thank them. Acknowledge what a great job they are doing. If you drop a ball, don’t get all whiny and defensive. Be honest. And I can’t tell you how far apologies go.

2) Look in the mirror.

If you are a board member who consistently under-delivers or is frustrated with the staff and thus misbehaves, be honest and quit.

If you were to make a list of folks on the board and put everyone in three categories, would you be a rockstar, middle of the road, or ‘dead weight?’ If you’re anything but a rock star, why don’t you just own it and step down?

But don’t you dare stop giving to the organization. If you were passionate enough to join the board, continue with the organization as a checkbook activist.

3) Create and execute a thorough board orientation process.

Part of what you hear in the frustrations is a lack of role clarity. When can you deal directly with staff? What decisions do boards make? What about staff? You can cut so much conflict and drama off at the pass if folks understand the rules of engagement.

4) Create a solid board recruitment process.
Invest time (and money if you have to.) I’ve written quite a bit about this. It is absolutely fundamental. What does your board need in terms of skills and attributes to effectively partner with the staff?

AND WHAT CAN THE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR DO?

Time for some tough love.

1) Stop behaving like such a damned “type A” overachiever.

I don’t care if you are the greatest E.D. in the Milky Way, you cannot do it all. Proving to your board chair that you have it all under control and you need nothing from the board but money is foolish and arrogant. If you don’t see your board chair as a partner, that board will never deliver for you. Never.

So here’s the antidote: vulnerability.

“I’ve got something going on and I need to kick it around with someone. I really could use your good thinking on this.”

2) Show some deference to your board chair. Publicly.
Your entire board needs to remember that the buck doesn’t really stop with the E.D. but rather with the board, most specifically the board chair.

You can model behavior for the board. Maybe folks will start treating the board chair like the leader. Also, it’s a short ride from deference to appreciation and I guarantee you board chairs feel appreciated far less than they should.

3) Never talk smack about your board to a single member of your staff.

I know. Some of these board members are insufferable and in extreme cases, treat you badly. But when an E.D. talks smack, it creates an institutional animosity toward the board that is absolutely never helpful.

And can I be really blunt? It’s immature and not very leader-like. At all. Instead create opportunities for staff to share concerns that you as the E.D. can raise with the board chair.

YOUR TURN. WHAT DO YOU THINK?

I would love to hear from staff and board.

What strategies and tactics have you employed to enable an effective board leader to actually BE effective?

What might you do differently having heard the voices of good board leaders at the edge?

We need to support the folks who raise their hand to be leaders. That’s how you build a leadership pipeline. That’s how you generate a list of folks who actually want the job.

And you’ll avoid a rush to the rest room when it comes time to vote.

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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  • Sally Wolfe

    Well, not to brag….but I’m going to brag: the last four or five board chairs at my organization have been outstanding. They’ve been leaders. They’ve been listeners. They’ve been learners. They set expectation and goals, and let the committees do their work. And all have espoused ‘nose in, fingers out’. Great for the organization and great for development.

    • Sally – Brag away! Nose in, fingers out? That is an awesome phrase!!!

  • I am a board chair and my biggest beef (and the board’s) is not getting important information in a timely manner. It’s almost impossible to embrace the “advise and consent” part of the job if you’re lacking essential facts. We are going through a huge organizational transition now, one which involves lots of moving parts and a large cast–kind of like a Cecil B. DeMille epic. A simple, one paragraph “this is what happened of note today” email from the ED to the BOD would calm things a lot. It’s hard to convince board members to support the organization with their dollars, and to get out there and encourage others to do so also, when the internal feeling is one of barely managed disarray (even if the reality is nowhere near that). And to your point about succession: NOBODY wants to be the next president, and my term isn’t up until December! Hell, I had to strong arm someone to be VP, and was able to do so only by promising she would not be expected to step up next year.

    Our ED is wonderfully capable, an inspired advocate for our organization, and has great standing in the community. She is leaving the BOD out of the loop way too often, though.

    • NurseEllen. Thanks for this. When have you last done a performance review with your E.D.? Time for one? Also, be sure that goals for performance evaluation also include goals for how she interacts / communicates with / engages with the board. It’s also sounding a bit like a hesitancy to tell your ED anything negative about an otherwise stellar performance. Talk about the BENEFITS of partnering with the board. That might help.

    • Janet Colm

      This is such a concrete suggestion – why not just mention it to the ED? I used to do a “quick update” of a sentence or two (not even a paragraph) after a board member suggested it to me. Not daily, but whenever something noteworthy happened – sometimes it was just a client story.

    • Good idea on the updates. Just make sure that people send even a two or three word comment on those updates, hopefully positive and a thank you for keeping us informed. It’s very discouraging to send them out to silence and when you have 100 things to do, you want to make sure they matter. Communication is two way. My current board chair is great at feedback, but it’s nice to hear from others, too. Also, some boards get confused in their role and start to try to manage when they hear updates.

  • Michal Nortness

    First, Joan: I rec’d your book a week ago and am loving it. (LOVING IT!) It’s really good. Thank you for writing it with such humor and authenticity. I’m an ED, and hope to see a piece like this from our perspective. Communications is especially my pet peeve just now: we are a very small working board rebuilding after a period of real neglect (one is tempted to say criminal neglect, but we’ll let that go for the moment). No response to emails, conversations that exclude those who need to be part of it through failure of the board chair to communicate. I could go on and on, but I’ll just say in closing that it makes it very hard for me to build a collaborative partnership with my board chair. Also makes it extremely difficult to rebuild when we’re always having to back up and have this discussion again. Thanks for letting me vent.

    • Michael. A reader ALWAYS gets to vent after he has said such nice things about my book 🙂 Great idea for a complimentary blog post. I just added it to the list. Will reach out to EDs just as I did to board chairs. Thanks for the idea.

      • Michal Nortness

        Thank you, Dahling, and please note: It’s Michal – no ‘e’ Feminine form – King David’s first (and not so nice) wife. in other words: I’m a girl! 🙂

        • This “darling” says OOPS. So sorry. And you are welcome!

          • Michal Nortness

            no worries whatsoever. Many thanks continuing! And hey, it’s Friday!

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  • Susan Samaniego

    Your book is wonderful! I have so many stars and notes in the margins (my indicators of actionable ideas) and I am only halfway through it. As a second career ED finding my way in a fledgling foundation in rural Colorado, this dose of authentic reality has touched and inspired me in so many ways. Thank you.