How to Tie a Shoe

In Board Development, Evaluations by Geoff Burns

For organizations that are under duress, board members frequently avoid the crucial issues and get sidetracked on mundane concerns. Think for example the process of bringing in a new Executive Director. In most cases, new Executive Directors do not get the support and “Onboarding” needed to fully integrate in to the culture and mission of the organization. (Click here for a great article on this process and how Executive Directors seldom get the support they need.) However, sometimes the board acts in the opposite fashion and instead of being “hands-off,” they begin to micro manage the new director.

Unless the board is a working board that actually does the majority of the work, it is the responsibility of board to hire, support, and evaluate the Executive Director. The ED then is responsible for hiring the appropriate staff, or evaluating which existing staff members need moved, or their roles changed. Jim Collins in his book, Good to Great, used the concept of a bus and getting the right people on the bus, then getting them in the right seats, then deciding where to go. In most nonprofit organizations, it is, and should be, up to the Executive Director to establish the job descriptions of his/her team, staff, and volunteers. When board members start to inquire about the job descriptions other than that of the ED, two things happen, and both are bad.

First, the board is indicating that they don’t have confidence in the director. Instead of supporting the ED, the board is now meddling in tasks that are not the place of a board member. The second thing that happens, is the board is loosing focus on their roles and responsibilities. In many cases, the board of directors does not have an ongoing relationship with the existing staff. They won’t have any hands-on experience with the staff moving forward, and they are highly unlikely to know much about the daily operations. Even if some board members have an understanding of daily operations, it is only in extreme situations where a board member could actually provide any insight on how to change a staff member’s role to benefit the organization. In short, the Executive Director lives the day to day and board members are best suited to make sure that the organization is being funded, actively participating in fundraising and advocacy, and developing policy to enhance the impact of the mission.

Great nonprofits have the right people in the right places and collectively achieve the goals. Tasks are delegated to the correct parties. Board members know their roles and hold each other accountable. The Chair is a true leader and exemplifies what a great board member should be. Likewise, the Executive Director is empowered and supported with the resources needed to achieve the mission. The ED gets feedback from staff and board members to improve efficiency and impact.

So why the title of “How to Tie a Shoe?” Unless your board members do the majority of the daily operations, don’t bother looking at staff job descriptions. The board would be better served spending their time discussing if the Executive Director ties his/her shoes correctly.