How to Build an Effective Executive Committee

I bet this button gets used frequently during most Executive Committee calls.

I bet this button gets used frequently during most Executive Committee calls.

True story.

An Executive Director I know gave his monthly update on his national Executive Committee conference call. After speaking for about 15 minutes without interruption, the connection dropped.

He had no idea.

Committee members tried to get through to his office, but he had given explicit instructions not to be disturbed. His assistant could even hear him talking on the phone. To himself.

Eventually, the ED realized what happened and was mortified. But honestly, every single person on that call should have been mortified. The ED had radio silence before and after he was cut off. He couldn’t tell the damned difference.

This isn’t really about how to have an effective Executive Committee meeting or call. The problem is deeper. This committee had no clear sense of its purpose. The ED’s entire “speech” could have been communicated in writing just as easily.

So what do I think an Executive Committee is?

Vital

What value can it bring to a nonprofit?

Enormous

OK, I have lots more to say (no surprise there…)

First, let’s talk about what Executive Committees have devolved into.

WHAT AN EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE IS NOT

  • A pre-ordained group of board members selected as a function of their titles.  One chair, one vice chair, one treasurer, one secretary and the chair of each standing committee.
  • An opportunity to get the inside scoop. To hear a monologue (or to at least try to do so while checking email) about what is going on at the nonprofit that month.

WHAT AN EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE SHOULD BE

  • The Executive Director’s most valuable think tank. With a medium-large board, the ED simply must raise difficult problems she/he has not already solved.
  • The cream of the Board crop, regardless of title. Yes, your officers must participate (by way of by laws.) And frankly, if they’re not best of breed, you have an entirely different set of issues. But the others? Perhaps the cream-of-the-crop are all committee chairs – that would be nice. But it isn’t necessarily true and we all know it. The remaining slots should be filled with thoughtful folks who can ask good questions and can help an ED untangle a program or staffing knot with intelligence, confidentiality, and support.
  • A decision-making entity between board meetings. This was the original purpose of such committees. Some things just simply can not wait. While an Executive Committee shouldn’t do something like hire or fire an ED without a full board discussion, there are some decisions that cannot and should not wait and that a functioning, high caliber Executive Committee can vote on.
  • A forum for conversation and discussion about things that matter.  Again, if you have the cream-of-the-crop in the room, take advantage of their minds, their experience, their commitment. Create an agenda that offers EC members the opportunity to voice ideas, concerns, suggestions. This is why they joined the board. And no one wants to be on a useless committee.
  • A place to vet strategies before putting them in front of the board. Perhaps the search committee for the new ED is getting close to presenting candidates. Board meeting is 3 months away. Search committee could make a presentation to the EC and discuss how best to roll the process out going forward.

WHY DON’T EXECUTIVE COMMITTEES FUNCTION LIKE THIS?

  • ED Insecurity:  Lots of ED’s choose to keep their board at arm’s length. They don’t want their board members to know if things are challenging, if there’s a knot they can’t untangle themselves. So they paint a rosy picture. And as long as it stays rosy, this strategy can work.
  • By Laws:  It’s always convenient to blame dysfunction on the by laws. I have two words for you. Amend them.
  • Laziness:  Most executive committees are on autopilot. Approve those minutes, let the ED ramble (check your email or put your phone on mute), committee chairs then report out that they are about to have a meeting, that they just had a meeting and if only they can remember what it was they talked about. Meeting adjourned. No thought necessary prior, during or after the meeting.
  • Insufficient board members in the “best of breed” category. An ED may be reading this saying, “This is all well and good but I don’t have seven great people I would bounce ideas around with every month.” Then take an active role in board governance and nominating and make sure you are recruiting leaders. Some don’t even have to work their way up the pipeline. My most successful board chair was recruited specifically to chair the board. She was on the board for three months, learned the lay of the land and then took the reins. You can do things like that. And they can be very successful.
  • No one told them it was supposed to be any other way. This goes back to another pet peeve of mine. Board members don’t know any better. They join boards without orientation, without a clear understanding of the charge of each committee. They get asked to do things and if asked nicely by just the right person, they say yes. Usually, somewhat reluctantly. That’s just how it goes on the vast majority of boards.

SO HOW DO YOU BUILD A MORE EFFECTIVE COMMITTEE?

  • Board chair and ED meet to discuss the charge of the committee. Discuss all of the above, honestly and openly. Consider a re-thinking of the committee. Re-draft the charge.
  • Put the Re-draft of the charge on the next EC Agenda.  I’d suggest dedicating an entire meeting to this. You can do the other business in 15 minutes. Have a substantive conversation about the role of the committee – what each person thinks it should be, review the charge document. See if you can reach consensus.  (By the way, these are the kinds of conversations that EC members should be having.)
  • Have someone take a look at the By-Laws.  Perhaps they preclude non-officers or non-committee chairs from serving. AHA! Yet another substantive conversation for an Executive Committee meeting.
  • If you can’t make a big change, make a small one.  What about increasing the size of the EC and adding one or two members at large?
  • Last but not least: Quick written reports from all committee chairs must precede each meeting.  I myself find it rude and a waste of my time to hear a committee chair spend 5-7 minutes telling me something that could have been in an email 2 days before.

This topic was a request from another subscriber. Hope it was helpful to you as you work to make the most of every board member during their board service. And until you fix your committee meeting, I encourage you to clear your throat or cough from time to time so the ED knows she/he has not been disconnected.

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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