by Rob Meiksins, CEO
I’ve been thinking a lot about nonprofit governance—specifically, the relationship between board and executive—for a couple of reasons.
First, I’ve been preparing to teach a series of workshops on governance here at the Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee. I’ve taught the series many times before, and this time, the theme that unifies the sessions will most likely be the balance between governance and administration, board and agency executive in particular.
Second, I’m in a new role as I teach this series, as the CEO of NPC, where the board just elected a new set of officers and voted in several new directors—all of them nice choices. Now, instead of working on a board-executive relationship from the outside, as a consultant, I’m on the inside, as a part of that relationship. I’ll admit, it feels very different.
Between the two different roles, I’ve been able to make some observations and draw some conclusions about what makes the board-executive relationship workable:
There is no ideal balance between the executive and the board. As the old adage goes, if you've seen one board you've seen one board. They’re all different, based on the maturity of the organization and the nature of the people who sit around the board table and behind the executive’s desk.
And that balance changes across time, because the organization’s governance is and will always be transitory. While the staff charged with implementing programs and achieving goals change little year by year, board directors—who take on the role of providing leadership, oversight, and support—change almost every year. As new directors are added, directors cycle off, and new officers are elected, the relationship with the executive will change.
I have a new board to work with, essentially, with new people in the various officer roles, and four new directors replacing two who cycled off. Though I was hired by one board, I’m now going to need to build relationships with a group of a different composition and figure out how we can all work best together.
Over many years as a consultant to nonprofits, I’ve seen the gamut of styles of board engagement, from not enough (completely disengaged) to way too much (micromanaging). I’ve also seen executives who want too much help (asking permission for everything they did) as well as those who want no help at all (“this is my organization, and the board just gets in the way”).
What I’ve learned is that some dysfunction in the relationship between the executive and the board is normal. In one or two cases I can recall, the relationship between board and executive looked very dysfunctional when compared to what is considered ”best practice” — but it actually worked for them and the organization was moving along smoothly and running some very good and impactful programs. As a consultant, I had to say, “It ain't broke, so I won't fix it.”
That’s because a board-executive relationship can bear some dysfunction if all parties have the same expectations. The biggest cause of conflict between boards and executives is differing and unspoken expectations of the relationship. As an executive, you have to have a board that you can work with and get along with and vice versa—you need to learn how to work with your board. You need to be a team, and both parties need to want that. Articulating what you expect of yourself and each other in that regard goes a long way toward reducing and eliminating sources of conflict.
The issue is to find the relationship that works for you and your organization. Be intentional about it—my governance series theme from last year. As the new officers take the reins, particularly the president, there should be a meaningful conversation about how this year is going to go, how you are going to work together, and what you want and need from each other.
If you think real-world conversations about governance would be helpful to you—or if you just like to geek out on governance—please join my governance workshop series.