Marginalizing Board Members

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on May 5th, 2011 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

1 comment

I have no time for an executive director who intentionally shuts out the organization’s board.  Putting it succinctly:  you are a self-aggrandizing, stupid and, might I even go so far as to say evil person?  You know who you are.

Whenever you think it necessary, you say all of the things you think you are supposed to say:  all the different variations of “Woe is me.  My board doesn’t do anything!” You make all of the right noises and say how hard you’ve tried to get them to step up and do their job, blah, blah, blah.  But inside you are rejoicing, as you accomplished your goal.  You have moved your board right to where you want it:  marginalized and staying out of your way!  You want to run the show—all by yourself.

You think you are smarter and better than the board.  But that’s really just another indicator of your foolishness and why the board should immediately let you go.  By failing to recognize the value-add a board can and should bring to a nonprofit and intentionally circumventing it, at best, and castrating it, at worst, you are willfully sacrificing the ability of the organization to maximize the full power of its mission. You deserve to be fired.  Unfortunately, if you are really good, you’ve got the board so far removed it doesn’t realize you work for it rather than the other way around.

On the other hand, I have a tremendous amount of respect for the executive director who works tirelessly to try to engage the board, to get the board to step up and fulfill its responsibility, to do its job–the executive director who really yearns for that partnership between her/him and the board.  You, truly, have tried everything to get the board to step up.  You’ve suggested classes to attend or trainings to bring in.  You’ve told them about books and websites and articles to read.  You’ve invited them to meetings and receptions and still more meetings.  And frequently, they take you up on all of your offers—the classes, the readings, the meetings.  But you still aren’t getting what you want.  You’ve done all that you think you are supposed to do, except for one important thing:  you don’t leave them any room.  Only if you shrink a little will there be room for them to squeeze in.

In other words, you need to dummy up and take a back seat.  All too frequently when I am working with a board and an executive director, I’ll ask a question, unmistakably of the board, and one of two things happens:  either board members—almost in unison as if it were “the board”—turn to the executive director to answer or the executive director just answers immediately, neither getting a signal from the board nor giving individual members time to respond.  Very frequently, if I haven’t already provided instruction in advance of the meeting and asked the executive director not to speak unless I directly address him/her, in the very same breath of asking the question I tell the executive director not to answer.  This always provokes laughter—laughter that starts out as an indication of amusement and quickly turns to discomfort when board members realize I am serious, the executive director will not speak and no board member knows the answer to the question.  The board wants to know the answer, wants to be able to shine, but for so long the executive director has done all of its work, it never learned the answer.  All too frequently, when I am having a brainstorming session with a board, or subset of the board, and the executive director, the executive director is always first to respond to a question, a musing, a suggestion.  Instead of sitting back and giving board members the opportunity to take the lead with their thinking, to flex their mental muscles and creative talents, the executive director is effectively silencing them in the rush to justify him/herself.  You’ve brought them to the table; now give them the opportunity to perform.  They might stumble at first, miss a few beats; eventually, though, if you give them room, they will find their stride and you will have what you wanted:  a partner instead of a dishrag.

If you are an executive director who truly wants a partner in the board, stop answering and doing for the board.   Shut up and count to 100.  Try letting it stand on its own two feet and grow into its position.  You just might be pleased by what happens.


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