Board Leadership Matters: 2013 reflections

Several experiences in 2013 stand out as examples of how the personal leadership of board members can result in significant change for the organizations they serve.

Leadership transition

  • Some key members of the board of a large social service agency had become dissatisfied with aspects of the Executive Director’s leadership.
  • I was approached by a member of the board who wanted to make sure that their decisions were made in a fair and open manner and that they focused above all on the interests of the clients they serve.
  • With his support, the board agreed to a full and careful evaluation that included: past performance assessments; a survey that reached every member of the board; multiple meetings of the HR committee to review the results; meetings of the entire board and the community advisory council; complete confidentiality; the retention of a PR firm to manage communication; a plan to engage an interim ED; commitment from the Board Chair to assume temporary executive responsibility if the Interim ED was not appointed by the planned target date, and an action plan that reflected input from their advisory council.

Organizational assessment and infrastructure planning

  • An independent school received a review by their accrediting organization that was positive about their educational program, but identified several infrastructure concerns. They had four months to submit a corrective plan.
  • The Board Chair saw this as an opportunity to develop an action plan to strengthen their infrastructure. Rather than rely only on staff and board, we created a project team of outside consultants to work with staff and board to develop the response.
  • The response not only addressed the concerns, but provided staff and board with an action plan to strengthen the ability of this unique school to achieve its mission.

Key staff partnerships

  • A relatively new Executive Director had been very successful in turning around an organization that had been facing serious financial challenges. She hired a new Deputy Director who has been very successful in working with community groups and contracting entities.
  • Tension, however, developed around communication between them about project implementation responsibilities and reporting that led to negative evaluations and a probationary warning. The Chair of the Board suggested mediation.
  • Mediation meetings with each of them separately and then together, led to a mutual understanding of the dynamics of their communication issues, an action plan to address them and an agreement for a process to monitor their progress.

Leadership development

  • The Chair of a synagogue board I previously led asked me to rejoin the board to create a plan for leadership development.
  • The work initially involved interviews with members of the community identified as potential leaders.
  • Once a Nominating Committee was formed, the Chair and I agreed that board recruitment needed to be based on an understanding of the primary board responsibilities and an explicit statement of the expectations of board members.
  • This process will require the board to address the differing views that members hold of its responsibilities and hopefully, lead to the adoption of the board structure needed to lead and support a changing community.

Board Chair/ ED relationships

  • Serving as a member of the selection committee for the annual Non Profit Awards of Excellence has afforded me the opportunity to learn from organizations identified for their superior management.
  • A particularly memorable experience came during the site visit for this year’s Gold Prize winner–Children’s Village.
  • The Board Chair was describing his very close and supportive relationship with the Executive Director. He paused, however, to offer the reflection that while they were very much a team, he was always aware that it was also his responsibility to maintain a degree of detachment in order to be able to provide critical oversight.

Concluding reflections

  • I am a strong advocate for the importance of structures and procedures in enabling boards to provide effective leadership and support. At the end of the day, however, there really is no substitute for the personal leadership, initiative and courage of board members deeply concerned about the organizations they serve.
  • We should not forget the importance of encouraging and rewarding this initiative.